Flattering to deceive

French President Nicolas Sarkozy Photo: PA

An almost perfect afternoon watching rugby on Sunday (OK, for an England fan) was repeatedly interrupted by the French TV director cutting away to a rather grumpy looking man in the crowd. His face seemed to say ‘why are these imbeciles letting themsleves and their country down, and anyway what on earth am I doing here?’ He was, of course, M. Le President de la Republique who has never been known as a rugby fan, but who presumably thought that being in attendance as ‘Les Rosbifs’ were roasted would boost his image as the leader of a great and reviving nation. The best laid plans, and all that…

A poll out this morning has Nicolas Sarkozy ahead, for the first time, of his rival François Hollande in the first round of voting, which for a man whose re-election chances seemed close to nil just a couple of months ago is a remarkable turn-around. That’s the good news. The bad news is that detailed, private polling seen by ITV News suggests that in the second round run-off, antipathy to Sarkozy is so strong that defeat still seems almost inevitable. The lastest public poll conducted by Ifop seems to support that, with Hollande still comfortably in front in a head-to-head contest by 54.5% to 45.5%. Hard as Sarkozy might try with the positives, his negatives are overwhelming him.

So why the surge in first round polling, but relatively little movement in the second round numbers? The answer is that Sarkozy has parked his tanks squarely on the lawn of Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National, and is winning over a signifcant number of her natural supporters. At a rabble-rousing speech near Paris on Sunday night he launched into the Schengen treaty on passport-free borders, saying France would pull out unless more was done to tackle illegal immigration. He sounded like an old-style protectionist as he demanded that EU contracts go to EU companies and then proposed US-style taxation of French citizens if they decided to live abroad.

And if that wasn’t enough, he threw a bit of anti-Muslim rhetoric into the mix as well. “We have banned the burka” he boasted. “Men and women share the same swimming pool timetable, have the same doctors and children share the same school canteen menus”. All red-meat issues to the French right, but while this may give him a morale-boosting win in the first round, his new supporters were likely to vote for him anyway in the second.

What is interesting to outsiders is the way that Europe is becoming an issue in a French election for the first time in recent memory. If Sarkozy wins, France will tear up the Schengen Treaty. If Hollande wins, the Fiscal Union Treaty is toast. These are the debates that we’re quite used to in Britain, but the French are in uncharted territory. One of Hollande’s closest advisors accused Sarkozy at the weekend of sounding “more like a Conservative British Prime Minister”. I don’t think it was intended as a compliment.

Of course, once the messy business of voting is over, a new French President is likely to revert to type and resume his position alongside Angel Merkel as one half of the ‘European motor’. Many French voters may be disappointed, but they probably won’t be surprised.