Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Royal look forward

Today has ended with a new Ipsos poll showing that Nicolas Sarkozy would defeat Segolene Royal 53.5% to 46.5%, a seven point gap. With 52 days to go until the first round of the election, there is still plenty of time for the dynamics to change, but that change will require a cause.

For Royal, February has been rough. She has seen a small lead in late 2006 and early 2007 disappear into a several point deficit, which seems to fluctuate with regards to the daily campaign. A strong TV appearance has helped her recuperate, but was not enough to break out of the hole. When behind in the polls there are only several options: allow the other candidate to fall apart, attack, or change your own campaign and message.

If allegations such as the recent Sarkozy apartment discount stick politically, no action may be necessary, but considering he has already been able to shake off abuse of power allegations and inappropriate investigations into Royal campaign members, inaction wouldn't be the most prudent course for Royal. Segolene has already attempted the third option: first with her "presidential pact", which sent her poll numbers into a nosedive, and then with her prime time TV appearance and campaign reorganization, both of which helped, but have not been enough.

Frankly what is fascinating is the fact that Royal and the Socialists have not been able to successfully damage Sarkozy through good old fashioned political attacks. I can't think of a more vulnerable candidate to run for the French presidency; he has made semi-racist remarks, he is unabashedly pro-American and pro-capitalist, he is clearly power hungry, he has shown a streak of abuse of power, he wants large civil service cuts, he is very willing to sacrifice some of France's social model for economic growth, and he honestly scares a lot of people. I'm not making a judgment on whether or not Sarkozy would be a good president, but simply that he is so vulnerable on so many crucial issues.

This should all be rather sobering to Royal. Obviously her attacks so far have been falling flat, or her own campaign and message have been so underwhelming that Sarkozy's apparent competence is enough to give him a several digit lead. The first step for her will be to complete her own readjustment. Royal needs to prove that her muddled economic plans won't send the French economy immediately into decline, and that she is just as competent as Sarkozy to lead the country.

One thing that could help is a well reasoned foreign policy platform. Royal has not only suffered severely from her own foreign voyages (Mideast, China), but is always judged as less competent in that area than Sarkozy. A well thought out and sensible policy that would address French interests in more sophisticated ways than the "aircraft carrier or education" debacle could go a long way in at least setting the right tone.

Then come the attacks. As I outlined above, there are so many ways to go after Sarkozy that it is rather remarkable nothing has worked as of yet. During the Mideast trip the UMP showed that even unfair attacks, such as criticizing Royal for the Nazi comments she didn't even hear, can create a negative impression in voters' minds. Royal has shown she can win a primary on the positiveness of her message, now she'll have to show that she can retain that while still playing hardball.

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A New Hope: Intellectuals support Royal

In recent months several French intellectuals have abandoned the disorganized Socialist camp and come out in favor of UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, but today Segolene Royal finally got some of the solid support she has needed. La Nouvel Observateur has published a letter signed by 150 French intellectuals that among other things, attacks Sarkozy for his fearmongering, and calls on France to vote for Segolene Royal.

"Supported by the new financial aristocracy, he (Sarkozy) incarnates the tender of the policy to the money. Favorable to a reinforcement of the presidential capacities, he incarnates the temptation of the cesarism against the deepening of the democracy. Engaged at the sides of the current American administration, he incarnates the risk of imperial adventures, the shock of cultures and the confrontation of the people. He is the candidate of the fear. Fears that he exploits - those of the future, the world, abroad, the young people - but also of the fears which he inspire by convening the imaginary one of the strong man, of the vindicatory and exalted chief, whom got excited by the power and himself.

Against this danger, Ségolène Royal is the candidate of hope. She gave birth to it by defending a participative democracy where the citizens are recognized as the experts of their problems. A hope at the same time social and ecological, ethical and democratic, French and European, not sacrificing the living and working conditions to economic modernization.

(...) This election is not ordinary and it engages, through the fate of France, a little of the future of the world. This is why, against a right of arrogance, we call to choose, as of April 22, a left of hope, as a voter of Ségolène Royal."

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Sarkozy speech on foreign policy

UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major foreign policy speech today, outlining his vision of the world and addressing a wide variety of current concerns.

The most obvious variance from traditional French policy is his position towards the United States. Sarkozy said that he would like to form a Franco-American friendship that is "deep, sincere, staunch" because it is "a necessity for the balance of the world." He made sure to distance himself from any ideas that he would be slavish to America, saying that "I want a free France, I want a free Europe. I therefore ask our American friends to leave us free, free to be their friends."

The other deviation is his policy is his greater support of Israel, saying that he would ensure that the right of Israeli security is the same as the right of a Palestinian state.

Europe-wise Sarkozy continued to push a simplified EU treaty, which would include the creation of an EU foreign minister. Sarkozy wants to end the current EU veto system, whereby any country can prevent an otherwise unanimous initiative. He may also take a step back from Germany, saying that France and Germany should not "jointly dictate EU policy."

More details can be found here.
You can also watch the whole speech at his website.

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Segolene Wrap-up

Time to catch up on some Segolene Royal news. Yesterday Royal spent her day in the suburbs where much of the rioting occured at the end of 2005, trying to reach out to an estranged electorate: "My major Presidential project will be to see these popular quarters succeed. I no longer want you to be considered as a problem, but as part of the solution." Later in the day she defended herself against a threat in the satirical newspaper Canard Enchaine that they would reveal some political dirt on her finances. Royal said that "everything is transparent" and she is not worried at all.

On Monday night the home of one of Royal's political advisors was robbed, and one laptop was stolen. Police patrolled the area last night.

Finally, today Segolene Royal has declared her opposition to a plan by Airbus to layoff 10,000 workers, which would save the company "5 billion euros over the next 4 years, and then a further 2 billion per year." This is in sharp contrast to a spokesperson for Sarkozy's UMP, who called the plan "essential."

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sarkozy 's grand discount

Alex at Paris Calling has decoded a somewhat convoluted but perhaps crucial story that broke today with regard to UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. The satirical French newspaper Canard Enchaine is running a story which claims that in 1997, Sarkozy was sold an apartment in Neuilly for 300,000 euros (nearly $400,000) below the market rate. The catch: the same company that sold him the apartment had been granted city contracts, which was then being governed by Sarkozy.

Sarkozy was able to successfully shake off earlier claims by the same paper about investigations into Royal campaign members, but with fewer weeks left to go in the election, there is less time to recover from any new political damage. Apparently Canard Enchaine promises more dirt on Segolene Royal as well.

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Join the fun presidential style

Paris Link has a rather amusing article explaining how you can be a presidential in France in 2012! According to him, you only need to complete 5 easy steps, which include "Invent a meaningless campaign slogan" and "Answer your own questions".

But wait, there's also some excellent fashion advice:

Ségolène Royal has taken it all to a new level, what with being a woman and everything. Want to appear vulnerable and feminine? Wear white. Want to appeal to socialists? Wear red. Want to appear tough? Wear a leather jacket, and you'll probably get the sado-masochist vote as well.

Men - Nicolas Sarkozy is leading the way here. When you want to appear calm and relaxed (which obviously, being a power-mad Presidential candidate, you are not), put on a polo-neck jumper instead of a shirt. If you're venturing into agricultural country, wear a brown suit, you'll fit in.

Is there a law against non-citizens from running? I might have to give it a go.

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Bayrou reaches new height

UDF candidate Francois Bayrou reached new heights today in an IFOP poll that shows he would collect 19% of the vote in the first round, just 6.5% behind Segolene Royal in the same poll.

Last night Bayrou followed in Sarkozy's and Royal's footsteps by appearing on the French TV show "J'ai une question à vous poser".

"I have the certainty that with the UMP system against the PS (system) it was impossible to leave the dead end in which France finds itself. If one wants to do concrete (things), it is necessary to make people of different camps work together."

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Sarkozy in Spain

UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy went to Spain today, and will be speaking with at least 1400 of the 120,000 strong French expat community there. He will also meet Socialist President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, and will attend a memorial for the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

In other Sarkozy news, the BBC is reporting that Sarkozy may allow wine advertisements on TV and at the movies, saying that "Wine cannot be lumped together with tobacco or drugs." Sarkozy himself does not drink, but he did indulge in some wine tasting at the rally. The wine industry in France is huge, with 75,000 jobs, but it has faced stiff competition from new producers across the globe.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Even steven for SegoSarko

Psychologically today was an important day for the Segolene Royal campaign, with an LH2 poll showing that Royal would tie Nicolas Sarkozy 50% - 50% in the second round of voting. Royal had been several points ahead of Sarkozy until mid-January, when Sarkozy's strong party nomination and a series of Royal gaffes sent her tumbling to an eventual 10 point deficit.

This quick rebound since last Monday's prime time TV appearance and the reorganization of her campaign on Thursday could once again propel Segolene Royal into the running. However, polls continue to show that UDF candidate Francois Bayrou, who would defeat either Royal or Sarkozy in the second round, is still at a strong 17% in the first round. A crucial stumble by either Royal or Sarkozy within the next 50-odd days could open the door for a possible Bayrou surge. But if Bayrou is worrying the minds of the two major candidates, he is certainly reassuring many French, who do not want to see Jean-Marie Le Pen once again make it into the second round.

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Déjà vu all over again for Sarkozy

Perhaps Nicolas Sarkozy should pay more attention to the mistakes of his opponents. One month ago Socialist candidate Segolene Royal embarassed herself on French radio by not knowing the number of nuclear submarines France possessed. Today Sarkozy did the same.

Asked today by a journalist how many nuclear attack submarines France has, Sarkozy replied "four", to which the journalist replied "five". In fact France has six nuclear attack submarines. Sarkozy later said that "Honestly, the question is a bit specious."

Sarkozy says no to Iranian attack

UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy said today that he would neither support nor join the United States in a military strike against Iran and its nuclear facilities.

"The municipal elections were a failure for the Iranian president," Sarkozy told RMC radio. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered a setback in December's municipal elections.

(...) Asked if France would support military action in Iran if he is elected, Sarkozy responded, "No."

"When you see what's happening in Iraq ..." he said, trailing off. France was a leading opponent of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sarkozy said U.S. hints that it had not ruled out military action in Iran were "useless posturing."

"In international relations, pragmatism is better than posturing."

This is not unexpected, but it may eventually force Segolene Royal to take a stand. She has been the harshest against Iran, saying that they should not even have a civilian nuclear program, but has never said whether or not she would support military action.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Can humor change a nation?

The Washington Post is running a long article on "Les Guignols de l'Info" a French comedy show that uses rubber puppets to satirize the current news and politics. Apparently polls have shown that the show has influenced voters in the past, and 50% of the French believe it will have an "important" influence on this upcoming election. So how does it describe the two main contenders?

Now, the show features conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy guzzling tranquilizers to suppress the authoritarian interior minister within, then telling voters: "I've changed."

His Socialist rival Segolene Royal, though less omnipresent, is shown as vacuous, spouting platitudes at half-speed.

While it claims innoncence, some critics have accused it of being anti-Sarkozy, as evidenced by one recent clip:

In one sketch, it likened tough new immigration rules to television show 'Pop Idol', in which contestants try to impress a jury with their singing in the hope of becoming a star.

Les Guignols renamed it 'New Immigrant', with applicants passionately making their case for moving to France to a jury of Chirac, Sarkozy and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Sarkozy's puppet rejected all the black Africans but enthusiastically backed a group of blonde Danes in Copenhagen.

According to Wikipedia, the show also makes a great deal of fun of the United States. One character, modeled after US actor Sylvester Stallone, described the 1991 Gulf War in these simple terms: "Here's the good guys that's us, and here are the ragheads, so we'll kill everybody there..."

Contrary to many comedy shows, George W. Bush is displayed as a rather nuanced and sensitive individual:

George W. Bush is depicted as a complete cretin along with his father. He always shows a tendency toward war and fights against terrorism in his bedroom, defending himself with hand grenades (beer cans). His laptop password is "connard" (the French word for "asshole").

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Hollande calls for unity, Sarkozy promises to quit

With Segolene Royal at his side, Socialist party head Francois Hollande today urged his party to rally behind Royal in the first round of voting so as to create "a dynamic of victory."

In doing so he attempted to reign in any socialists who might be thinking of crossing party lines:

"I fixed a rule as of last summer (...) which consisted in saying that the socialist elected officials, in capacity to give their signature to a candidate, must give it only to Ségolène Royal, now candidate of the Socialist Party. I do not prohibit any other elected official close to the left in making another choice."

Hollande also voiced his concerns over the danger of Jean-Marie Le Pen or Francois Bayrou beating out Royal and making it into the second round.

On the other side of the aisle, UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy promised last night that he will resign as Interior Minister at the end of March. The suspected date of departure is March 23, which would give Sarkozy a full month of campaigning before the first round vote.

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Le Pen's wishlist

National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen has come out with his presidential platform, which can be summed up as saving France money by getting tough. Here are some examples:

*By stopping social welfare programs for foreigners, Le Pen would save a whopping 18.5 billion euros.

*He would also make France more French by cracking down on binationality, automatic acquisition of nationality, reducing residency permits from 10 to 3 years, and implementing a "policy of return."

*In terms of law and order, he would bring back the death penalty for serious crimes, increase the prison system capacity for 75,000 more people, and create a new "presumption of self-defense" for the French police.

*Healthwise he would get better refunds for dental and eye care, as well as create incentives for doctors in rural areas. On harsher note, he would implement an anti-fraud plan he says will take in 5 billion euros, ban stem cell research and cloning, and refuse to legalize euthanasia.

*Le Pen would promote adoptation and a "prevention policy" to reduce abortions and increase population growth. He would also create new family loans and pay minimum wage to mothers who choose to stay at home with their children.

*He will revamp the French military with a complete exit from NATO, 70,000 new soldiers, a national guard, 6 months voluntary service, and increase in defense spending.

There is more which I will be adding soon.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Royal v. Sarkozy, 1 point difference

It seems that Segolene Royal's latest TV appearance this past Monday may have been her saving grace. A new poll by IFOP says that in a second round vote, Royal would lose to Nicolas Sarkozy 49.5% to 50.5%, a mere one point difference. This is the closest Royal has been to Sarkozy in at least a month or two, and is a far cry from her lowest point ever of 45% to 55%.

Here is what the pollester himself had to say:

"(The TV appearance) played a rather important part (because) it had a function of reinsurance near the electorate of left on the credibility of Ségolène Royal and her capacity to shoulder the presidential function. She made her come-back, reinvested in the ground, while Mr. Sarkozy missed much, with the first criticisms on his project, his (economic) figures, and of the beginnings of cacophony in his camp, however much less strong than that which one saw in the Royal camp.

(Sarkozy) always takes much of the extreme-right-hand side but much less of the UDF (while Bayrou) settles really like the third man of this campaign, gathering the UDF well, taking a little bit of the UMP - 9% sympathizers - and 14% of the sympathizers PS.

We have a slightly insane election, a very very strong indecision , with a voter on two informant capacity to still change opinion and still risks of passage between the electorates Bayrou Sarkozy and Bayrou Royal."

If even the pollsters find these numbers insane, there must still be a long way to go.

Royal competence meter falls, Le Pen moves forward

Socialist candidate Segolene Royal has suffered a fall in her competence numbers, with a new poll showing that only 47% of the French believe Royal would be competent as the leader of their country, a stark contrast to Sarkozy's 79% competence. Also, only 45% believe that she is "convincing as a presidential candidate", while 48% think the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen is convincing. That being said, Royal is continuing to work to reunite her party behind her, and even made a surprise appearance on a French comedy show last night.

Despite weaker poll numbers in recent weeks and doubts that he will receive the required number of sponsorships, National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen is beginning to release his own presidential program. The heart (or fist) of the program is a policy against immigrants, both by sending some back to their country of origin and limiting social benefits to only French nationals. Whether he can gain any forward momentum will have to be seen, as he has been rapidly sidelined as UDF candidate Francois Bayrou has moved into the "third man" position.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Presidential Race meets Race

France is notorious for not collecting statistics on ethnicity in its census, but a new willingness among presidential candidates may change this:

France's umbrella organisation for black groups, Cran, this week repeated demands that France begin collecting statistics. It polled the candidates' views and found Mr Sarkozy was in favour of counting ethnic groups, along with several other candidates. Ms Royal was the only one against.

Patrick Lozès, head of Cran, told the Guardian: "The fact that most candidates are in favour of collecting these statistics is a sea change in France. Three years ago this was completely taboo. Ségolène Royal was clear about her reasons for opposing it: she feared information could be used to keep records on individuals."

Royal is not alone. The daily paper Libération published a petition signed by "40 academics and campaigners", which said that such a change could lead to greater racial confrontation. Whatever the outcome, there is no denying that racism is a real problem in France. According a Guardian article, "56% of black people said they suffered racial discrimination in their everyday lives, and 37% said the discrimination had got worse in the past year."

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US think tank warns of Royal foreign policy

The conservative US think tank The Heritage Foundation has a quite insightful analysis of Segolene Royal's foreign policy views and how that would bode for future Franco-American relations. In terms of the United States, the analysis is scathing:

It is difficult to imagine a Royal presidency being anything other than a recipe for tense transatlantic relations. Royal's damaging international trips, matched with her failure to mend fences in Washington, are a realistic indication of what a Washington-Paris axis would look like under a Royal presidency.

(...) The French Socialists are pushing an agenda in Europe that represents a strategic threat to the United States. The Royal vision for the European Union would make Brussels a rival to America, rather than a partner.

(...) as a committed Socialist and darling of the Left, Royal would steer a status quo course for French politics that would continue the disintegration of the Franco-American relationship and put even more distance between the Elysée Palace and the White House.

The writer does fall into slightly into the trap of hyperbole. There is no doubt that the beginning of a Royal presidency would not heal relations with Washington, but the possibility of a Democrat in the Oval Office in several years, plus Royal's apparent pragmitism with regards to key Washington issues like Israel and Iran, could eventually lead to some thawing.

The author may also be a bit guilty of pessimism. In late October she wrote a similar analysis of Nicolas Sarkozy, but still concluded on a rather uninspiring note:

...the United States should not expect an immediate sea change in French foreign policy if Sarkozy comes to power. He will face opposition from powerful vested interests in the French political establishment that will resist fundamental changes in Paris’s approach toward Washington. Sarkozy is also likely to stick to the trusted model of the Franco-German alliance and will push for more, not less, centralization of political power in Europe.

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Segolene Shakeup

As promised, Segolene Royal has shaken up her campaign team with the creation of a 20 person "strategic counsel", which will be used to shore up Socialist party support. Among its members are Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Royal's two "elephant" challengers in the Socialist primary.

In the opinion of one Australian paper:

The change was not so much a policy overhaul as a recognition that the "participative democracy" championed by the Socialist candidate had demolished party discipline.

In addition, the Socialist Party headquarters will become the center of the campaign, shifting power away from Royal's own campaign headquarters. To her credit, Royal is rebuilding step by step, and understands that if she is to beat Sarkozy in the second round, she first must secure her base of traditional Socialists and appear a competent contender. However, she doesn't have much time. Sarkozy, who has successfully galvanized his party, is already moving towards the center to gather as many centrist votes as possible, as evidenced by his recent economic speech calling for state intervention. Although Royal is starting off well, she will risk alienating those crucial center votes if she spends all her remaining time pacifying the left wing.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Sarkozy jumps toward center

Today in an hour and a half long speech in Strasbourg, UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy distanced himself from his free-market reputation by declaring that government has a crucial role to play in the economy and in trade.

"If I am elected president, I will propose to our partners to assign as missions to the euro zone the moralization of financial capitalism and the promotion of an economy of production against an economy of speculation and rent.

I don't accept that capitalism works in favor of some funds who buy up companies and start by firing 25 percent of the staff. (...)

I believe in the advantages of free trade, but a managed, regulated free trade, where the state intervenes to compensate for social, monetary and ecological dumping... (Europe needs to) protect itself against the abuse of its competitors and Asian dumping.

When others protect themselves, Europe disarms. Yes, 'protect' is part of my vocabulary. You can protect your national interest and detest protectionism.

These center-leaning declarations can only be attributed to the fear that the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou could beat Sarkozy if he unexpectedly faced him in the second round. It is also an attempt to suck enough votes away from Bayrou so that he never even makes it past the first round, which could occur if Royal stumbles badly.

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Royal takes nuclear debate public

French socialist candidate Segolene Royal has promised to make the construction of a new "third generation" nuclear power plant in Flamanville a matter of public debate. This was announced by her eco-adviser and former Greenpeace leader Bruno Rebelle, who said that the decision for Électricité de France to build the plant was made "even before a public investigation."

Royal is in the difficult position of promising that 20% of French energy production will be by renewable sources by the year 2020, but also pledging to reduce dependence on nuclear power. Germany has faced a similar dilemma in its promise to phase out nuclear power by 2020. Sarkozy has avoided this by saying that he would promote nuclear energy.

Royal's comments drew hesitent praise from Greenpeace, an ever ironic situation because Royal's brother helped blow up the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior ship that was protesting French nuclear weapons' tests in the Pacific.

This statement may also be a sign of more pledges for public debate. Although Royal's manifesto was deemed rather uninspiring, there is no denying that her initiative of public discussion online and in person has fueled her campaign to where it is today. She has already shown a willingness to consult the French during her potential presidency through her "citizens' juries", so this could possibly carry over into different fields of policy as well.

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Royal handouts

All candidate pander to their voters, so it is no surprise that many of Segolene Royal's policy proposals will delight certain segments of the population and disgust others. Although not exactly true, this bit of satire does make a point:

The « allocation autonomie » « is designed to enable youngsters to enter their life as they mean to go on, » Royale told the assembled party faithful.
« If we get into power, many of these people may never work in their whole lives, and it’s hard on them… It’s particularly unfair that unemployment benefit is only paid to those who have worked, so youngsters entering the unempoyment market don’t have any rights at all. The « allocation autonomie » is designed to plug that gap, and enable young people to enter adult life exactly as they will continue – living on state handouts. »

Opinion polls showed that the Royale campaign received an immediate boost from the mesure, intentions of vote in the 18-24 group targeted by the mesure rose from 3% to 99% only minutes after the mesure was announced, with the majority of the new votes coming from youngsters who had previously intended to stay in bed on election day.

The fake article then interviews a teengager in Lyon who says that "All they have to do now is legalise cannabis, and even I would manage to get out of bed on election day." Perhaps he shouldn't; Royal will send delinquents to military school.

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Bayrou speaks, France listens

UDF candidate Francois Bayrou gave an interview to the AP yesterday, and among other things, said that he is not merely a default candidate:

"Everywhere in Europe there is a desire to escape from quarrels which are essentially those of the 20th century, the quarrels of the Berlin Wall, left and right. (...)

The French — if I'm not mistaken; I say that with a lot of caution — want to be dealt a new hand, they want a new deal. Simple as that. And when the people want a new deal, it is very difficult to stop it. And they have found a candidate who responds to their aspirations. (...)

All polls today show that if I am a candidate in the run-off, then — to observers' great surprise — I win the presidential election. This is, it's true, the rise of a candidate that we were not expecting. But the French have for a long time not been satisfied with the choice being forced upon them."

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Royal back in running

More polls are confirming what was first hinted at yesterday: Segolene Royal has closed the gap but is still losing. A new poll by BVA says that a runoff between Nicolas Sarkozy and Royal would end with each winning 52% and 48% respectively. The first tour puts Sarkozy at 33%, Royal at 26%, and Francois Bayrou at 15%. Jean-Marie Le Pen is there as always, today with 10%, and Jové Bové, the anti-globalization candidate many feared could take votes away from Royal, is stable at a mere 2%.

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Bayrou, man of belief

If the French or Americans don't see similarities in their social systems, they are utterly wrong. As the UDF's Francois Bayrou continues to advance in the polls, it is surprising to find that this centrist and even sometimes "boring" man has had the typical religious upbringing of many/most American candidates.

He's a gentleman farmer known as the horse-whisperer, a fervent Catholic who raises thoroughbred mares and writes historical biographies, posing for photographs on his tractor to appear close to the people.

Born near the Catholic pilgrimage town of Lourdes, the devout Mr Bayrou was once described by the senator Charles Pasqua as "the only politician who assured me that the Virgin Mary appeared to him and predicted he would be president of the republic". Married at 20 and with six children and 11 grandchildren, the regular churchgoer is nonetheless a staunch defender of the secular state. A biographer of the French king Henry IV, he has recently succumbed to the trend for presidential candidates to talk about the suffering of their youth, describing how he overcame a childhood stutter which gave him the nickname "Shakes" at school because he couldn't pronounce Shakespeare.

But despite the respectability and non-partisanship for which he stands, Bayrou has faced some more blunt words from political analysts.

Frédéric Dabi of pollsters Ifop called him a "receptacle" for those let down by the main candidates' campaigns.

However, one shouldn't brush off those labels too quickly. After all, the one thing you can be sure of, is that Sarko or Sego, there will always be trash.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Will Sarko lose it?

The Guardian has an editorial warning that UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy is still capable of losing his strong lead and the French election. It mentions the ususal threat of Bayrou or Le Pen, as well as a possibly resurgent Royal, but does hit at one potential weakness.

A lack of really bold new ideas coupled with doubts about his proposed €30bn (£20bn) in extra spending and tax cuts has reinforced suspicions that Mr Sarkozy is a second-hand car salesman masquerading as a man of destiny.

To Sarkozy's credit, he has had to walk a very fine line, proposing reforms to get the French economy moving without alienating too many voters. But if neither Royal nor Sarkozy wow the electorate with bold vision, it will come down to personality, a contest that Sarkozy will come up short. So while Royal is attempting to recover her battered image, Sarkozy is going to have to not only continue to upkeep his image of competence, but ensure that his policies are linked to a somewhat inspiring vision for France.

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Segolene Does Something Right

The first polls since Segolene Royal's primetime appearance are in, and looking good for her. She is now beating Sarkozy in the first round (29% to 28%) and losing by just two points with 49% in the second round. We'll still have to see how long lasting this bounce really is, but it has the potential to reignite what has been a very sorry campaign.

Despite the rosy news for Royal, the poll also confirms that she and Sarkozy will have to stay concerned with UDF candidate Francois Bayrou. Bayrou is now at 17%, and can easily rise higher if Segolene or Sarkozy stumbles. As shown just yesterday, Bayrou would beat either of the two major candidates in the second round.

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Le Pen and 9/11

Jean-Marie Le Pen has opened his mouth again, and this is what came out. During an interview Le Pen used the word "incident" instead of an "événement" to describe the September 11th attacks. The interviewing journalist then highlighted the fact that 3000 people died on that day, eliciting this response from Le Pen: "it is what there is in one month in Iraq, and much less than the bombardments of Marseilles or Dresden at the end of the Second World War."

One wonders if he really wants those final signatures to be on the ballot. In all fairness, he is correct, but I'm sure there could have been a nicer way of phrasing it.

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Royal post-game show

So what happened last night? First of all, in terms of viewership, Segolene Royal beat Nicolas Sarkozy hands down. An average of 8.9 million viewers watched Royal, while only 8.2 million watched Sarkozy Feb. 5. Likewise, Royal peaked with roughly 10.6 million viewers, Sarkozy only 9.7 million. But as we know, it's not the size that matters, it's what you do with it.

According to The Telegraph, Royal appeared somewhat nervous at the beginning, but soon returned to her "trademark smile" once she was questioned on social issues. Perhaps the most emotional moment of the whole evening was when Royal held the hand of a man with multiple sclerosis who had burst into tears; something a male candidate would have a tough time doing.

The Telegraph also states that Royal was at her best when distinguishing herself as the only candidate who can handle the growing frustrations of France's youth population.

...she was most effective in attacking Mr Sarkozy at his Achilles heel - his poor image among sections of French youth. "I think I am alone in incarnating and [being] capable of bringing about the deep change that France needs, in particular by creating a pact with the young. There is a deep crisis, an anger that is growing," she said.

The suburban riots that rocked France in 2005 had not been properly dealt with, she said, calling for the return of neighbourhood policing. She also promised a case by case approach to immigration control.

Now we'll just have to wait to see if this gives her any new momentum in the polls.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Royal debut on TV

Tonight Socialist candidate Segolene Royal appeared on the French TV show "I have a question for you" where she answered a variety of questions from voters and attempted to revive a struggling campaign.

The Royal campaign has not shied away from the fact that they want this appearance to boost her in the polls. Today an email was sent out to everyone who had signed up at her website, calling tonight's even a key moment in the campaign. Over the course of two hours Royal explained the various proposals outlined in her policy manifesto just over a week ago, and said that she is "the only one able to carry out the deep change which France needs."

Although Royal has had difficulties over the past month or so, she proved last fall that she should not be underestimated as the underdog. Royal has recently stopped wearing her trademark white jacket, but it was back on again tonight, with the required heels and skirt. She never once mentioned Nicolas Sarkozy by name, and instead attempted to refocus the camera on her femininity and personality.

"I am a woman who speaks clearly. I heard the comments, I saw that there was a certain number of adjustments to make and I made them. I am very serene and very solid."

If you have a knowledge of French and are curious, you can watch bits of the show here.

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Bayrou surge

In the last post I mentioned that the latest polls from late January said that UDF candidate Francois Bayrou would beat Segolene Royal in the second round, but lose narrowly to the UMP's Nicolas Sarkozy. Not any more.

In an IFOP poll taken from February 13 to 15, Francois Bayrou would beat Segolene Royal with 54%, and would also beat Nicolas Sarkozy with 52% if he faced either or them in the second round. He has also risen in the first round polls, up to 16%, but still below Royal's 25.5%. This information should be most worrying to Royal. Although she has trailed Sarkozy in the second round polls, it has always been assumed that she would get through the first round without too much difficulty. But with her campaign in shambles, the threat of another candidate at her heels will remove any luxury she had in the first round.

Ironically, Nicolas Sarkozy now must hope that Royal makes it into the second round, although I am ignorant of the actual implications of that in his campaign.

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Help me Bayrou, you're our only hope

Tiberge at GalliaWatch has posted a story that says Socialist politician Lionel Jospin, who was defeated in the 2002 presidential election in just the first round,

is recommending to his friends that they cast their vote for François Bayrou in the first round thus enabling him to get to the second round where he has a chance to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy. Lionel Jospin does not believe that Ségolène Royal will withdraw and does not hide his feeling that it will be necessary to rebuild on a field of ruins.

This information comes from the website of Claude Reichman, a French dentist who is now a leader in the "Blue Movement", a semi-conservative but apolitical group dedicated to reversing the decline of France. Whether or not this is true, Jospin and many traditional socialists are certainly worried that Royal's stumbling campaign is beginning to look like deja vu all over again, and that the only way to avoid the election of Nicolas Sarkozy would be to elected the centrist UDF candidate Francois Bayrou.

Interestingly, a poll taken just two weeks ago shows that Bayrou would lose to Sarkozy in the second round by only 49% to 51%, while Royal (at the time of this poll) was losing 48% to 52%.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Royal delusion?

An editorial from the Guardian yesterday has a good analysis of Royal's policy pact announced just last Sunday. The writer begins with "Those of us who have been trying to find a reason to support Ségolène Royal haven't had it easy" but ends on a less than humorous note:

Some on the left have let themselves believe that Royal, however wistful her proposals, will reinvigorate France simply by virtue of her sex and her patient, conciliatory manner. A female president? How wonderful. How progressive. But France is split painfully down the middle, torn between socialist retrenchment and Sarkozy's vision of a free-market, hard-line France. To imagine that a woman is capable of uniting it because she is a woman is to believe that Delacroix's bare-breasted Liberté really did lead the bourgeoisie and the working class through the barricades. It makes a fine picture, but it is self-indulgent fantasy.

On a superficial level, I disagree. If one had to choose a candidate based on his/her ability to unify rather than divide, Royal would beat Sarkozy hands down. You can almost hear the protesters getting ready for President Sarkozy's first proposed reforms. But unity without purpose is just as bad if not worse than division, because at least a divided country will debate the problems it faces, instead of ignoring them like now. Royal's challenge over the next few weeks will be not only to show that Sarkozy's version of change is wrong, but regain the new-comer anti-traditionalist reputation she earned during the Socialist primaries. The French know they want change, but they will not vote for Royal-change unless it is a credible alternative to Sarkozy-change.

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Le Pen Scrapes Along

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front candidate who startled everyone by entering the second round last election, may not even make it to the first. Every candidate must gather 500 sponsorships from elected officials, but because of a new law requiring that these names be released, Le Pen is finding it much more difficult to gather the necessary number.

Today Le Pen did not say exactly how many he has gathered, but attempted to convey a message of confidence:

"I currently do not have the number of signatures necessary. Let us say between 450 and 500, it is very insufficient so that I feel at ease."

Le Pen had hoped to receive over a hundred such signatures when his rival Bruno Mégret decided to support him several months ago, but that promise has failed to materialize. Instead, Le Pen will have to continue asking, and hoping, to have enough sponsoships by the March 16 deadline. I don't get the feeling there's much doubt that he will eventually have enough, but such difficulties do not help energize a campaign. Le Pen has already seen himself fall from 17% in the polls to now several points below Francois Bayrou, but apparently he continues as ever. A news conference is scheduled for Monday.

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Do they know what they're getting into?

The British paper The Sunday Times is running a quite disturbing article on the private life of the Chirac family, and how his rise to power affected his daughters and wife, complete with affairs, mental illness, and suicide.

I'm not going to peddle the details, but it should stand as a sobering reminder to the candidates of this year's election. The media has already had a field day with the always awkward relationship between Segolene Royal and the head of the Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, and Nicolas Sarkozy's relationship with his wife Cecilia has been the source of never ending rumors and speculation. One just hopes that even if such problems are a prerequisite for heads of state, they do not intefere with the millions of citizens they wish to represent.

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Royal reorganize?

"When all else fails, blame someone else" seems to be the new motto of Segolene Royal's campaign, although it is being carried out under the kinder name "a new organization." Royal has come to a new low of 45% in the polls, and will be announcing this newly organized presidential campaign next Thursday.

"We need a team more fleshed out and with better structure, it is necessary that we leave self-management, it is necessary to recreate hierarchy. There will be more people of responsibility. (...)

We have a good presidential pact and party, at the base, it goes, in particular with regards to the connections with the federations...But people need to have precise instructions, and it is necessary to be based on this ground mobilization."

Segolene Royal also found fit victimize herself in comparison to Nicolas Sarkozy, saying that, "Everyone understands that there are a disproportion between my means and those of the Minister of Interior Department." The AFP points out that Sarkozy's recent trip to Réunion, although partially under the guise of Interior Minister, was payed for by the Sarkozy campaign to avoid controversy.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sarko's bedside reading

UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy's book "Testimony", which was a hot seller in France, is finally coming out in an English version in the UK. The Guardian has a great review of the new English transaltion, highlighting how much of an Anglophile Sarkozy really is, and his less than subtle admiration of Margaret Thatcher. It does however say that Sarkozy's section on crime is incoherent, and his somewhat hypocritical hardline against immigration.

In the end it sums up the basic weakness that is apparent throughout the book: Sarkozy's blatant hunger for power.

His muscular, bustling strut, the snarl that still, despite the work on his image, occasionally crosses his face reveals another side. And it's a side that, especially when compared to the reassuring femininity of Segolene Royal, frightens many voters.

If you're curious, you can get it from the UK amazon. They are currently discounting by 34%, but I wonder how much of a better deal you could get if he loses the election.

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Hope remains for Royal

Although Segolene Royal may feel a bit frustrated right now, she shouldn't be too gloomy just yet. According to a recent IFOP poll taken Thursday and Friday, 79% of the French still believe that the dynamics of the presidential election will change between now and the first round on April 22.

While of little practical significance right now, the psychological benefits of this number should not be underestimated. Politics can be very much like a football (American) game, meaning momentum dominates. If the idea of a Sarkozy victory becomes seemingly inevitable, it will become inevitable, so it will be in Royal's best interests to prevent such a thought from ever taking hold. Though this will be difficult, especially if Sarkozy does not falter on his own, a strong performance on this Monday's question & answer show could at least give Royal more breathing room.

The only way to then catch up with someone in the polls will be to attack. The socialists have already played the "American" card against Sarkozy, which has come to little. They have also attacked his pro-capitalist proposals, but considering that these have been getting high marks in general, it may be a counterproductive tactic. Assuming Sarkozy does not stumble, the only way I can see Royal regaining the lead is if she reverts back to her one strength: her personality. If she can portray Sarkozy as the diabolical and manipulating dictator he is sometimes accused of being, always in strong contrast to herself, Royal may be able to scare the French into voting for a more traditional and reassuring candidate. Still, it will be a tough road ahead.

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Neocons take notice

The American neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard has stepped into the French presidential race with a pretty good overview of how the election has gone and where it will end up.

Although UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has been keen to distance himself from socialist claims that he is an "American neoconservative with a French passport", it is obvious that these neocons see him as one of their own.

The key moment in his (Sarkozy's) rise came in 2002, when he was appointed minister of the interior in Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government, at the age of 47. Overnight, he became the proponent of something entirely new in French politics--a no-nonsense conservatism in the manner of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Rudolph Giuliani.

It also had a rather interesting ending, saying that:

The fact is that both Sarkozy and Royal were selected because of their conservative appeal. It tells a lot about the present state of mind of the French. And it is perhaps a good omen for the future of Europe.

Here they might be wrong; Royal's recent manifesto is anything but conservative, and Sarkozy's penchant for reform is certainly not what the dictionary defines conservatism as: "disposition in politics to preserve what is established, a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change."

In fact what we're probably seeing is two liberal candidates, each with his/her own blend of pragmatism. If The Weekly Standard is looking for a new friend for George Bush, they would do well to look elsewhere.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Charts and Figures

Frogsmoke has discovered a great BBC chart which does a side by side comparison of Segolene Royal's and Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign pledges. The startling thing when one looks at all these in bullet form is the mundanity of it all, which naturally disinterests voters. This logically ends up shifting the focus on how the candidates package their message, a battle that up to this point, Nicolas Sarkozy has certainly won.

With regards to another figure, I'm happy to report that for the moment, the google search French election 2007 now places this site first, ahead of even the Wikipedia page. Although I am an avid contributor to that project as well, it's good to know that it is not invincible in the search engine wars.

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Moment of Truth for Royal

This upcoming Monday may be one of Segolene Royal's last real public opportunities to put a new face on her campaign and reverse what has become a route by UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is now leading every poll, and as one astute reader just found, commands a full 10% over his socialist rival. On Monday night Segolene Royal will appear on the French TV show "I've Got A Question to Ask You", in which French citizens will have the opportunity to ask her views on every conceivable topic. Now that her platform has been announced, she will also have to be ready to defend it against some withering criticism.

While attempting to connect with voters, Royal will also have to avoid making any new embarassing gaffes, which have been a major contributor to her faltering campaign:

Ms Royal's camp said she was comfortable talking "directly" to "the people". Others are worried it could turn into a kind of Mastermind in which people fire complicated general knowledge tests at Ms Royal to trip her up. She has made a series of foreign policy gaffes and recently could not give the size of France's nuclear submarine fleet. Ms Royal must also aim for ratings as high as Mr Sarkozy, who had 8.2 million viewers on the show.

As mentioned above, Royal has a tough act to follow. Sarkozy's appearance on the show a week or so ago was hailed as a campaign success, in which he was able to stay quite composed despite enduring harsh accusations of racism.

Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate who has managed a methodical rise in the polls, is now being looked at more and more as a potential upset to the SarkoSego runoff. Although still far behind Royal in the first round, a recent poll by Le Figaro stated that almost three quarters of the French agree with his statement that Sarkozy's and Royal's pledges are "unachievable."

That being said, not all is bad for Royal. Sarkozy is facing his own internal difficulties, with an economic aide recently suggesting that his pledge to cut social charges by 4% of GDP was unrealistic. And we should all remember that the election is still two months away, leaving all candidates the opportunity to rise or stumble.

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Royal cornered?

Today more fallout has emerged from the resignation of the Socialist Party's economic adviser, which has highlighted the cost weakness in Segolene Royal's 100 point manifesto, and growing divisions in the party itself.

It was illogical, M. Besson argued, for Mme Royal to stress the burden of France's national debt in her speech, and then not face up to the cost of her own programme and how it was to be funded.

Behind this quarrel lies the frustration and anger of many Socialist chiefs at Mme Royal's failure to co-ordinate the often conflicting impulses of veteran Socialist Party activists and her separate, youthful campaign team, Désirs d'avenir.

Also, Royal's comments last night that she would invest in education instead of a second aircraft carrier has aroused contrasting viewpoints in all the top contenders.
Nicolas Sarkozy:

"(I want) at the same time safety for France and a good education for the French. It is nevertheless a curious idea which consists in saying to the French: 'it will be necessary to choose, either you educate your children, or you ensure to them security,'"

Jean-Marie Le Pen:

"I give the preference to national Defense (...) a country like France cannot allow itself not to be defended. In fact, the second aircraft carrier is a need since, during time that one of them is in repair or revision, we would not have the means of intervening where we need to do it."

And finally from the Francois Bayrou camp:

"the second aircraft carrier must be done. It is necessary (to have) two aircraft carriers so that there is of them one which goes. It is necessary that it is European, it is even the most obvious. Should be made European defense. All alone France will not be able to support one great effort of defense any more. One needs a European defense. One has said it for several years. And it is the moment to do it with the second aircraft carrier."

One of the only candidate thus far who has also pledged to not spend money on a second aircraft carrier is Olivier Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist League. I guess with a party name like that, you wouldn't need a carrier to strike fear in your enemies...

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