Nicolas Sarkozy … is in deep trouble and is looking, for now, as if he could be the first one-term French president since 1981writes Steven Erlanger on the front page of the International Herald Tribune in an article the New York times calls With Vote Days Away, Outlook for Sarkozy Dims but which the IHT entitles, more upbeat-edly (for the French president), Which way will Sarkozy turn?
He appears to be running neck and neck with his main challenger, the Socialist candidate François Hollande, in the first round of voting on Sunday, when 10 candidates are competing. But all the opinion polls show Mr. Sarkozy losing to Mr. Hollande in a face-off two weeks later.
… His possible defeat carries implications that would radiate far beyond Paris. Mr. Sarkozy has had contentious but valuable relationships with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a fellow conservative, on European and euro zone issues; with the British on defense issues, including the Libyan war; and with President Obama on issues involving Iran and Israel, NATO and Russia.
A victory by even a centrist Socialist like Mr. Hollande, who has advocated higher taxes on the rich and a greater emphasis on growth over austerity, would create immediate strains with Germany and rattle financial markets that are already nervous about the size of France’s debt. Mr. Hollande has also said that he wants to pull French troops out of Afghanistan sooner than NATO has agreed to do. Still, he says that his first visit abroad would be to Berlin, no matter how chilly the reception.
Mr. Sarkozy faces an electoral dilemma that is inherently tactical. Presuming he gets through to the runoff on May 6, does he continue to run to the right, or move to the center? And will it make enough of a difference anyway in a nation that admires what he promised at the beginning of his term five years ago — a “rupture” with the past — but not what he has delivered, which is a stagnant economy and unemployment at its highest level in 12 years?
Even more troubling for Mr. Sarkozy, the polls indicate that many French simply do not like him — his negative ratings are high — and that many of them will vote in the second round for the bland Mr. Hollande or simply stay home rather than see Mr. Sarkozy back in the Élysée Palace for another five years. [The Economist agrees that "All the signs point to a win for the Socialist François Hollande, chiefly because he is the anti-Sarkozy candidate".]
… Working to [the Socialist candidate's] advantage is the fact that the public has tired of the grim business of budget cutting and is yearning for a different approach. Mr. Hollande is providing that, in the form of higher taxes on the rich, more state spending and an assault on inequality, themes that could conceivably reverberate beyond the Continent in subsequent years, particularly if they succeed.
Growing inequality has become a hot-button topic across Europe, and if Mr. Hollande were to win, the move to impose higher taxes on the wealthy could get a boost elsewhere, even in the United States, where President Obama has already promoted the so-called Buffett Rule to impose a minimum tax rate on incomes in excess of $1 million a year.
A potential victory by Mr. Hollande is already making the markets nervous about the willingness of France, and perhaps other European countries, to stick with pledges of austerity. That is true even though he promises to balance France’s budget by 2017. That, in itself, would limit his policy choices, says a prominent economist, Nicolas Baverez. But the same is true for Mr. Sarkozy, he says.
“No matter who is elected, France will have a major confrontation with the markets,” Mr. Baverez said. “There is very low growth and a huge public debt, and a refusal of the French political class to deal with the necessary cuts in public spending.” But with Mr. Hollande, he said, the test from the markets would come sooner.
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