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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