Showtime before the showdown

By Catherine Field

Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo / AP
Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo / AP

With only a week before the vote in France's presidential election, the two front-runners plan mass rallies in Paris tomorrow.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will hold his on the Place de la Concorde, and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande will be a few kilometres away at the Chateau de Vincennes.

In a campaign dominated more by style than substance, the competing shows will give a good measure of who is ahead.

But their organisers would do well to recall that the Place de la Concorde was a favourite place to decapitate leaders who fell out of favour during the Terreur, and that the Vincennes dungeons housed left-wing radicals after the uprising of 1848.

Sarkozy's big handicap has been public displeasure with his glitzy lifestyle, the sort of thing that in revolutionary times caused many a head to be lopped off.

And Hollande's problem has been a tax-and-spend manifesto that for the country's squeezed middle classes is grossly out of tune with the country's economic situation.

The party machines will aim at putting their champions in the most favourable light. Count on a remote podium, front rows packed with adoring fans and VIPs, and flags ... lots and lots of flags.

Groomed and cosseted, the candidates will take their time to enter and may well bring a spouse/partner/child on stage at the climactic moment.

Televisual slickness and turnout in the tens of thousands will be the benchmarks of success.

A slip-up or sign of weakness could open up the race in the final days.

"It's the war of the meetings," said Le Monde newspaper.

The daily Le Parisien said: "The goal is to show off the ability to get people behind them, while at the same time prevent the rival from grabbing the media limelight."

The drama began in earnest at the end of last month, hours after the Socialists revealed details of their campaign stops.

When the news reached the Sarkozy camp, his campaign staff immediately booked the Place de la Concorde, where the then-new president staged his victory party after the 2007 election.

Times have changed since those days, and Sarkozy's image-makers face two challenges. Their mercurial charge has a reputation for foot-in-mouth disease, and is especially tainted by a fondness for the company of the rich and powerful.

In recent months, though, fate has dealt Sarkozy a couple of good cards.

He has been able to act as a man of action who helped steady the euro crisis. And, more exceptionally, he has been able to portray himself as a paternal figure, consoling a nation shocked last month by murders in Toulouse carried out by a crazed Islamist.

Hollande's minders will be keen on pumping up his presidential credentials. Tubby and myopic, Hollande looks like the auditor he briefly was before he took up politics full time. His nickname in the satirical press is "Flamby", a brand of squidgy caramel dessert.

"It's not about a bodybuilding contest," Hollande's spokesman, Bernard Cazeneuve, said rather defensively in a reference to tomorrow's big moment.

"We are in the final stretch of the campaign and at a time of mass mobilisation."

Sarkozy said he viewed tomorrow's meeting as "a gathering of friends - I am waiting for them".

Should no candidate win outright in the April 22 vote, the top two vote-getters face a run-off two weeks later. Last week, opinion polls showed Sarkozy and Hollande neck and neck in the first round. Projections for the second round give the Socialist candidate an advantage of between six and eight percentage points.

Even so, the outcome is far from clear, and populist radicals may have a role to play.

To Sarkozy's right is Marine Le Pen, daughter of the xenophobic National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is digging into a rich seam of voter discontent with the European Union and fears about crime.

To Hollande's left is Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is fanning anger at the country's 10 per cent - and rising - unemployment rate.

On the assumption that these two are sidelined after the first round, the voting recommendations they give their supporters may sway the outcome.

- NZ Herald

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