|The Dutch Defence is one of black’s more aggressive and unconventional replies on the chessboard. It thus serves admirably as a metaphor for Sarkozy’s fight to rescue his incumbency from a seemingly inevitable, ignominious end under a Hollande landslide.|
Last week, for the first time in the campaign, Sarkozy took an albeit slender first-round lead in the IFOP poll. Indeed, the lead is so slender that the difference can easily be accounted for by margin of error. Whatever the statistical noise, however, there is a sense that this could mark a change in campaign fortunes.
It is far too soon to say with certainty whether this shift represents a blip or a trend. The focus on the poll showing Sarkozy’s advance should not ignore the SOFRES and LH2 polls which continue to give Hollande first place, and CSA and OpinionWay that tie the two at around 28 per cent. IFOP and OpinionWay both use internet panel surveys (CAWI), which according to our estimates tend to give Hollande around 2 per cent less than telephone surveys (CATI). House method may be partly responsible for undercutting the Socialist, then.
Historically, the latest polls are giving Hollande an average score higher than the average presidential first-round score by socialist candidates since 1981 – normally around 25 per cent, with only Mitterrand in 1988 polling more at 34 per cent – and this score in the eventual first round would be a significant improvement on Royal’s performance five years ago. One other historical precedent: perversely, Hollande’s lead in the polls since June 2011 makes the prospect of another ’21 April’, with Marine Le Pen progressing to the second round at the expense of the Socialists, less likely and therefore gives a number of left-wing voters the luxury of opting for more radical alternatives. No surprise, then, that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Front de Gauche candidate, has recently cleared the 10 per cent threshold for the first time. Thousands rallied in Paris on 18 March in a show of support for the candidate who pledges to incarnate the “people’s cries of protest”. Beside the traditional popular support of the former communist party, Mélenchon seems to be increasingly gaining ground amongst white collars in the public sector, the heartland of the socialist party.
Nevertheless, our poll of polls shows that the gap between the two main presidential hopefuls is narrowing (see chart below), and more due to Hollande’s negative slope than Sarkozy’s positive equivalent. This should put the Socialist on notice that there are some evident weaknesses in his defence.
Voting intentions (All Pollsters – Averaged latest 3 polls) – since October 2011
The American grandmaster Larry Evans maintained winning a game of chess required control of pawn structure, space, force, and time. Both Hollande and Sarkozy have demonstrated their ability to control thre first two. Unlike Royal in 2007, Hollande has managed to rally all defeated contenders of the PS primary, and to avoid too many discordant voices within his party. For his part, Sarkozy is enjoying a remarkable level of support from even those within the UMP (Juppé, Fillon, Copé, Dati) who have ambitions to take over right-wing leadership in a post-Sarkozy era.
In terms of space, control of the centre of the political board is balanced between the candidates. On the Left, Baylet’s radicals and Chevènement have declared their support for Hollande. On the Right, Borloo’s PartI Radical, Boutin’s Christian Democrats, the New Centrist Morin and Nihous of Chasse Pêche Nature Traditions are behind Sarkozy. Simultaneously, and until now, they have both ably defended attacks from the edges, as well as from within the centre. Marine Le Pen’s numbers have flatlined, the surge in popularity for Mélenchon seems unlikely to threaten Hollande’s left hegemony, and limited electoral support for Bayrou makes it difficult for him to reclaim his 2007 position as ‘third man’ in the race.
Differences do exist in the two candidates’ ability to use force and time, the latter being potentially the most decisive factor through the apparent loss of political impetus by Hollande’s campaign. Since 1981, the outgoing president has consistently led in the first round, even Giscard d’Estaing who eventually lost the second round against Mitterrand. That Sarkozy is striving to capitalise on the ‘head of State credibility bonus’ is still discernible in European issues. Whilst Hollande’s promise to renegotiate the Eurozone stability pact to bolster growth has come under harsh criticism by the UMP, Sarkozy’s pledge to force a revision of the Schengen agreement – subsequently extended to major European treaties – has been welcomed as a sign of France’s enduring commitment to building a better Europe. Both proposals have been met with scepticism if not irritation by France’s partners in Europe.
Sarkozy has also returned to his 2007 electoral strategy of shifting right, emphasising the traditional Right values – work, duty, responsibility – as well as authority and national sovereignty, all under a populist banner promising referenda and offering harsh criticisms of intermediary political bodies, trade unions in particular. In steering the campaign to the right, Sarkozy increases his appeal to voters in his own camp and stops the outflow of dissatisfied UMP voters to the FN. It complies therefore with the golden rule of unifying one’s camp in the first round, before turning to independent and centrist voters in the run-off.
In contrast, Hollande’s strategy of policy moderation, appeasement and uniting voters would seem to better fit a second round campaign strategy. With his main rival gathering strength on the right of the spectrum, there is a risk for Hollande in relying too heavily on the wave of political discontent that continues to plague Sarkozy. Part of the current support for the PS candidate is to be found in the desire by a majority of voters to turn over a new political leaf after five years of ‘Sarkozysme’; yet Hollande cannot simply aspire to be an avatar of a protest vote against the incumbent in what would be a mere ‘anti-Sarkozy referendum’ rather than unconditional popular support for the left’s policies.
As epitomised by the flabby slogan ‘Le changement c’est maintenant’, what the Socialist candidate lacks is a clear ideological marker. Hollande’s presidential project has yet to formulate a better articulated response to microeconomic and pocketbook issues –wages, pensions, commodity prices– that have become paramount for the vast majority of voters during the financial crisis. Ideally, such response should form the left-wing counterpart of the right-wing ‘travailler plus pour gagner plus’ motto that proved successful in the 2007 campaign by the then champion of the self-assertive right.
The second important dimension is time. In electoral politics, as in chess, having a time advantage is having the time to think, and to take the initiative when it counts. Sarkozy has successfully managed his metamorphosis from president to candidate and gained political momentum since his public rally in Villepinte. By almost recklessly redoubling his efforts to distance himself from his highly criticised personal record in presidential office – a tactic which may catch up with him at the second round – Sarkozy has now set on getting voters to think prospectively rather than retrospectively. His strategy of formulating a new policy proposal a day allows him to set the agenda and now take the initiative, putting his opponents on the defensive and in the position of responding rather than making their own proposals.
Whilst Hollande undoubtedly had the initiative through his early campaign start, party nomination and presidential launch after the Le Bourget public meeting, Sarkozy has opted for a shorter campaign and still not yet disclosed his presidential platform in full. This makes it more difficult for Hollande to take the initiative for a fourth time. Even when he does so, for instance by declaring that his “enemy” was the “world of finance” in Le Bourget, or more recently by his announcement that he would impose a 75 per cent tax rate on top earners, the force of the statements ebbs from the inertia of a long-since announced manifesto.
This all said, the endgame comes only in the second round. Whilst Sarkozy throws all his pieces at Hollande in an aggressive counter-attack, these may now be desperate measures. Whilst the incumbent maximises his first-round score, the second round shows no substantial change, with Sarkozy still trailing Hollande by between 8 and 12 per cent, according to polls. Whatever the ideological positioning and debates of the first round, the anti-Sarkozy referendum will be key to the second where Hollande could benefit from transfers from across the political spectrum, including a significant proportion of FN and even greater tranche of Modem voters reluctant to support Sarkozy. In particular, it is doubtful that the hard line taken by the UMP candidate in the first round will meet with approval by the more moderate, liberal and pro-Europe electorate of the centre-right.
The Dutch Defence has fallen out of favour in chess, because experienced opponents know its flaws, and exploit them. Though a presidential novice, Hollande has the benefit of an experienced campaign apparatus behind him. The weaknesses Sarkozy has exposed through his very own strategy may yet give checkmate to Hollande.
A shorter version of this article can be found on the webpage of the Social Democracy Observatory, at Policy Network, a leading think-tank and international political network.