Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- France’s slumping economy and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s near-record-low popularity should have made his main rival in the presidential elections a shoo- in. Instead, Francois Hollande’s campaign is floundering.
The Socialist Party candidate, whose dominant lead in the polls is shrinking, will hold his first large political rally near Paris this weekend, seeking to stem the exodus of support. Hollande, elected the party’s nominee in the October primaries, summoned his team this week to ask them to end their public squabbles and pledged to fix his own wrong-footedness on issues ranging from taxes and nuclear energy to education.
“Hollande hasn’t managed to forge a strong identity,” said Nicolas Tenzer, a political analyst who runs a think tank called CERAP, or Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’action politique, in Paris. “He needs to lay out his top measures, the pillars of his platform, create an image of a statesman.”
With fewer than 100 days before the two-round ballot, 57- year-old Hollande is struggling to show he’s more than just “not Sarkozy.” With Europe’s second-largest economy probably in recession and about 61,000 job losses forecast for the first- half by the national statistics office Insee, Hollande needs to show he has a game plan to shield France from Europe’s sovereign debt crisis that’s in its third year, say electors such as Eveline Bureau, a 60-year-old Parisian grandmother of five.
“We voters want to be sure the next president is fit to fight this terrible economic crisis,” she said. “We need a fireman who can put out the economic fire. Hollande must quickly, urgently show us he has vision, he has solutions.”
French voters go to the polls on April 22 and then again on May 6 to cast their ballots in a runoff between the two leading candidates from the first round. France’s last Socialist President was the late Francois Mitterrand, who held office from 1981 to 1995.
A poll released Jan. 18 by Paris-based Ifop institute for weekly magazine Paris Match and Europe 1 radio showed that Hollande would have a 4-point lead on Sarkozy in the first round with 28 percent of the votes. That’s less than the 6.5 percentage points he had in December, the pollster showed. Ifop conducted the survey between Jan. 14 and 18.
Hollande has been reluctant to unveil substantive measures to counter the crisis, inviting criticism from Sarkozy’s camp.
Sarkozy, who hasn’t officially said he’ll seek a second term, has said repeatedly that he’s best placed to deal with the crisis, calling himself a “captain in the storm.” He has accused Hollande of failing to have a “credible” solution.
On Jan. 13, Standard & Poor’s cut France’s AAA credit rating in the country’ first-ever downgrade, denting Sarkozy’s crisis-management credentials.
The Socialist Party candidate’s chief of staff, Faouzi Lamdaoui, said in an interview that Hollande will present an outline of his platform at the Bourget rally on Jan. 22, followed by “more details” in a Jan. 26 television program. The party is preparing for about 10,000 supporters to attend the Bourget speech scheduled for 13:30 p.m.
Hollande’s proposals may include an overhaul of taxes, a public bank to support industry, 150,000 state-funded youth jobs, maintaining the 35-hour workweek, increased funding for culture, a smaller share for nuclear power in France’s energy- mix and a withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan by 2013.
“First of all we must rethink ways to generate growth in our country,” Pierre Moscovici, Hollande’s campaign chief, told Bloomberg Television in an interview in Paris. He reiterated Hollande’s pledge to stick to a 2013 deficit target of 3 percent of gross domestic product. “We will do that through fiscal policies and spending cuts, we must do both in a balanced way. Without a reduction of debt we cannot create jobs.”
Call to Merkel
Sarkozy has promised to cut the public deficit to 3 percent next year and balance the budget in 2018, a year later than Hollande’s pledge.
Moscovici, seeking to raise the European profile of his candidate, called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to meet with Hollande.
“I think she would be well advised to meet with the man who could be the next president of France,” he said in the interview on Jan. 19. “If he’s elected, which is quite likely, they would have a huge job to do together.”
On a visit to the western town of Nantes yesterday, Hollande tried to appeal to his base, saying, “My rival isn’t the incumbent. My rival is finance and the world of money.”
Hollande has had some communications snafus. In November, the Socialist and Green parties issued contradictory statements on their pact to cut France’s dependence on nuclear energy, which provides more than three-quarters of the country’s electricity. The spat created confusion, pushing Electricite de France SA shares down 9 percent. In January, Hollande contradicted aides who said he’d scrap a family tax break.
“I think Hollande is simply not ready, or his party isn’t,” the Parisian grandmother Bureau said. “No matter what it is, he shoots himself in the foot. I’m just disillusioned.”
--With assistance from Mark Deen in Paris. Editors: Vidya Root, Steve Rhinds
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