On the road with ‘Comeback Kid’ Nicolas Sarkózy

Thumb_james-mates
France's President is campaigning for the 2012 presidential elections
France's President is campaigning for the 2012 presidential elections Photo: Reuters

Love him or hate him, there is one thing you cannot take away from Nicolas Sarkózy. He is a formidable campaigner.

On the stump his energy, eloquence and sheer effervescence has no equal among French, or for that matter British politicians.

He has rediscovered the political drive that powered him to a convincing win 5 years ago. The only question is whether he has left it too late.

We followed him to a rally the North Eastern city Nancy where he galvanised a crowd of several thousand supporters in an out of town arena more used to hosting rock stars.

Nicolas Sarkózy arrives on stage during a political rally in Nancy
Nicolas Sarkózy arrives on stage during a political rally in Nancy Credit: Reuters

The audience were right-wingers, one and all, who had come to have their buttons pushed, and Sarkózy certainly knew how to do that.

Much of his recent revival is being put down to a sharp swing to the right since this campaign began.

The strategy seems to be working, and he's sticking with it.

So after a steady build-up that included jokes at his opponents expense and - more unusually - some at his own, he launched into a long passage about immigration and extremism and what he called 'French values'.

  • He kicked off with his announcement earlier in the day that five men accused of being extremists were to be kicked out of France - a reaction to the massacres last month in Toulouse and Montauban, but considered by many Sarkózy supporters to have been long overdue.
  • More was to follow: Men and women must be equal, he said. Then warming to his theme: men and women must be treated by the same doctors; men and women must be allowed to swim in the same pools; our schoolchildren must be given food from the same menu.

This won him the biggest cheer of the night.

In a country that has already banned the wearing of veils that cover the whole face, halal meat has become the latest battleground for those who fear the spread of Islam in France. Nicolas Sarkózy is embracing that battle with élan.

Nicolas Sarkózy greets the crowd at a political rally in Nancy
Nicolas Sarkózy greets the crowd at a political rally in Nancy Credit: Reuters

When Sarkózy first brought immigration and assimilation into the campaign several weeks ago he was accused of stoking racial unrest. The tragic events of Toulouse have changed the tone completely.

Sarkózy is now more likely to be portrayed as ahead of his rivals in addressing one of the country's most pressing problems.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, it is proving startlingly successful, pushing him into a clear lead among the candidates in the first round of voting, and closing the gap on his socialist rival François Hollande in the head-to -head second round.

It is hard to remember now that just a couple of months ago it was considered a serious possibility that Marine Le Pen of the far right Front National would beat Sarkózy and get into the second round.

Marine Le Pen, France's National Front head waves to supporters during a rally in Nice
Marine Le Pen, France's National Front head waves to supporters during a rally in Nice Credit: Reuters

Now polls suggest she is languishing with barely half his support, the victim of having the ground comprehensively cut from beneath her on almost every major issue for the right.

But the trouble for the President is that he might have expected most of these voters to swing behind him anyway when its him against a socialist.

Shoring up your support for the first round may feel good, but when it comes to winning the centre ground - where any head-to-head battle will inevitably be fought - it may prove counter-productive.

For the time being it is working.

The plan seems to be to worry about round two when they get there, and for the moment enjoy the feeling of being the comeback kid.

I asked him yesterday if thats how he felt; "êtes-vous le revenant?" I essayed in my finest French.

He paused, and appeared to smile slightly as he considered the concept. "Le revenant..." he said thoughtfully, before thinking better of engaging in debate with a British television reporter and heading off the relative safety of a clutch of French correspondents.

Not much of an answer, Ill grant you, though a common enough reaction from politicians to questions from the foreign press during elections.

No-vote-television as the Americans call us.

Nicolas Sarkózy visits to a solar power plant in Toul-Rosieres
Nicolas Sarkózy visits to a solar power plant in Toul-Rosieres Credit: Reuters

Part two of the strategy is to hope that the after effects of his assured handing of the Toulouse tragedy can last a little longer yet. Because as soon as the national conversation returns to the economy, to unemployment, to the crisis in the Eurozone, Sarkozy gets pushed right back on to the defensive.

Yesterday's PMI figures on the state of French manufacturing last month were dreadful. New car sales are down a whopping 20% or more in a month, and unemployment continues to creep higher both in France and the Eurozone as a whole.

Action by the European Central Bank to flood Europe's banking system with cheap money has put the Eurocrisis on hold. But as Spain is proving it has not tackled the underlying problems, and that may be clear to the French electorate before they vote for the second time on May 6th.

Sarkózy is still very much the underdog, but he now has a chance, and that itself is a big step forward from where he was a month ago.