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Champs fight for Elysée

The French presidential electoral process will soon begin, and process is the word, because the first round will only be won on points

How not to compare the decadence or disorientation of France with the personalities of the presidential candidates? Yet the gradual watering-down or dissolution of France can be read as a special case of the general decline of Europe. If anything remains of the supposed Franco-German “directorate” of the EU — the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy — it is because Berlin feels more comfortable sharing the burden of the crisis, while Germany advances toward full freedom of international action. If we once heard of the Europeanization of Germany, now it is more like the Germanization of Europe.

The French presidential electoral process will soon begin, and process is the word, because the first round will only be won on points, and until the second round in May we won’t know who will sit in the Elysée Palace. Only two party champions — Sarkozy, a post-Gaullist rightist, and François Hollande, a perfunctory Socialist — can hold or attain that dignity.

But there are three minor contenders: the more-than-socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the four-square centrist François Bayrou, and Marine Le Pen, the second-generation xenophobe, who are fighting with an eye to the day after, when they will choose the winner.

The Socialist candidate is a serious, decent, hard-working man, and has all the qualities for being a good president of France — except looking like one. Sarkozy is frivolous and borders on indecency, as when, letting the cause of the European Union down, he makes cheap electoral speeches attacking Spain. Yet he is more than hard-working, and hyper-expansive, and sometimes looks like a president.

In 2007, when he first won the presidency, he sold a different product, that of paying close attention to the citizen. His mandate was to be one of transparency; the voters would always know what their president was doing. But it has turned out to be a personality show, the lightweight media being ever eager to exploit the image of his wife, Carla Bruni, with Sarkozy’s apparent blessing.

The conservative leader has thus dangerously desacralized the presidency, becoming a colloquial president. France finds this change hard to appreciate. More acceptable, perhaps, is another facet of his government: his Atlanticism, in the name of which he brought France back into the military command of NATO, burying Gaullism for good. Can one picture General De Gaulle, Mitterrand or even Chirac taking part with Sarkozy’s enthusiasm in the American hounding of Iran, which is known only to be enriching uranium?

Hollande, who has never been a minister or held a relevant public post, is a lay intellectual who is unable to shed a certain bureaucratic air. He speaks well, knows his stuff, is a centrist within a compassionate and moderate left; but he handles himself better in face-to-face encounters than in the media or at mass rallies. Some days ago he shared a lectern with his former partner, Ségolène Royal — the Socialist candidate defeated by Sarkozy in 2007 — and his efforts to look natural were more in the nature of rictus than attitude.

Apart from these two, the other trio all aspire to obtain at least respectable results. Bayrou, who seems to be doing a wispy vanishing act between Sarkozy and Hollande, will be crucial because, of the big two, the one who in the second round bites off more of the centrist vote will be well on the way to winning; Le Pen, whose National Front, increasingly inter-class and nearer to Sarkozy than to Hollande, is confident of surpassing 12 or 13 percent of the vote and do more than break even; and Mélenchon, who with the 15 percent that the polls give him, looks like being the moral winner.

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