Can Nicolas Sarkozy win after all? With just days to go before the French president's run-off election with Socialist challenger François Hollande, polls indicate that the once sizeable gap between the two may be shrinking. A survey released Friday by the French polling agency BVA indicates that support for Hollande stands at 52.5 percent whereas 47.5 percent back the incumbent. That represents the smallest spread measured so far during the campaign.
The smart money, though, is still on a Hollande victory in the Sunday election, particularly after centrist candidate François Bayrou on Thursday announced that he would be voting for the Socialist contender. Sarkozy had been hoping that the 9 percent of voters who backed Bayrou in the first voting round last month could be persuaded to switch to the conservative camp and help him quickly make up ground against Hollande. That, though, now appears more unlikely than ever. And despite Sarkozy's recent tough talk on immigration, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen -- who garnered 20 percent in the first round -- said she would be casting a blank ballot rather than vote for Sarkozy's re-election.
Several analysts have also said that Hollande emerged as the winner of a crucial debate between the two candidates, which was watched by an estimated one-third of the electorate. The battle, which took place on Wednesday evening, was the most aggressive such debate ever in France and often devolved into name calling and anger. At one point, a furious Sarkozy was left sputtering "you little liar!"
Hollande, for his part, strove to take the high road. Alan Minc, a close friend and advisor of Sarkozy, told Reuters that "I think we all underestimated (Hollande). He's shown quite an uncommon strength of spirit this year."
Berlin has been watching the French campaign closely. Earlier this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered to assist the Sarkozy re-election campaign, partially out of concern that the leftist Hollande could torpedo her strategy for confronting the ongoing European debt crisis. She declined to meet with Hollande during the campaign. With a Hollande victory becoming increasingly likely, however, she has recently begun to soften her tone. Hollande has said that he would immediately travel to Berlin to meet with Merkel if he were he elected.
German columnists on Friday join the French in looking ahead to the critical Sunday vote.
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Chancellor Angela Merkel's partners abroad have not always been easy. US President George W. Bush gave her a public neck massage; Russian President Vladimir Putin hired her predecessor Gerhard Schröder as a lobbyist for Gazprom ... and Merkel was only finally getting used to a not-always-predictable Nicolas Sarkozy. Now it would seem that his political career has reached an impasse and that he will have to clear the path for the Socialist François Hollande."
"Franco-German relations are particularly dependent upon a good relationship between the two countries' leaders. This is not because of the difficult history or because of the differing mentalities. Rather, the political systems are simply too different. A French minister possibly has less power than deputy ministers in Germany. In France, parliament cannot slow down the executive in the way the Bundestag occasionally dares to do. It's not just the constitution that gives the president the final say: The fact that he is directly elected by people affords him massive authority."
"France's influence does not depend on strong sound bites and ultimatums, but on the fact that it is the strongest economy in Europe after Germany and that it acts as a buffer between north and south. In the past five years its function in this regard has suffered a lot. Hollande's program is probably enough for him to win the election, but it is not enough to overcome the economic downturn. The sooner he recognizes this, the more weight his voice will have in Europe."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"At the end of Wednesday's debate, Sarkozy listened almost with resignation as Hollande used the phrase 'I, as president of France' 16 times to set out his vision for the country. It is a vision which includes serious challenges for Germany. Hollande accused the likely outgoing president of having 'gotten nothing from Germany.' The accusation speaks volumes about Hollande's European outlook. He seems to consider Europe as a communal project that he would prefer to drive against Germany rather than together with it. The Socialist considers himself to be the forerunner of a growing movement striving for a 'new direction' in European affairs. Among his supporters, Hollande counts not only the southern European countries suffering under austerity, but also the fans of euro bonds with Germany's Social Democratic Party. Hollande, rather generously, even counts European Central Bank President Mario Draghi as being a member of that camp. Hollande's economic navigation system is analogous to software that badly needs to be updated. Perhaps he is trying to navigate through the misty landscape of globalization with a map from the year 1981. His intention is to demand that Germany guarantees the debts that will accumulate from kick-starting his economy. This strategy will likely lead to disaster."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Merkel is skeptical of Hollande primarily because she knows that difficult confrontations will be unavoidable if he is elected. One thing is clear: As soon as the fiscal pact is expanded to include allowances for growth and job creation, the French and other countries will insist on implementing such measures. And if the reforms do not suffice and no money is available for stimulus, Paris will remind Europe that providing the euro bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, with a banking license would be a solution. It is unclear who would win the resulting battle: Merkel or Hollande."
Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:
"During the campaign, Sarkozy has proven to be the more erratic and less reliable candidate. He targeted the right-wing extremist vote and placed his European credentials at risk. But he failed to offer up any kind of decisive reforms of the kind undertaken in Germany. Hollande is not a leftist revolutionary and claims to want to be the president of all French people. What becomes of his promises remains to be seen. But he is seen as reliable and consistent -- not bad qualifications for Europe."
-- Charles Hawley
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