The official campaign for the French presidential election began this week. Ten candidates are limbering up for the first round of a historic April contest and then the second round run-off on 6 May.
In the final weeks of the electoral contest – and in accordance with French media regulators – each candidate has been allocated a super-strict allocation of just 43 minutes over the coming weeks to say their piece in party political broadcasts. There’s a tired format that surrounds these blasts of ideological spiel; bad lighting, 1980s production and an emotionally poignant score. In a time of economic unrest, the candidates are poised for a battle of ideology, personality and political swagger.
But the plucky, energetic Sarkozy – forever flanked by his supermodel wife – has been sparing with his nemesis; the stolid Socialist figure of François Hollande, who recently touted an idea for a 75 per cent tax rate for top earners. As the French credit rating was downgraded in January, Sarkozy jogged around Paris – how American, really – and espoused his intention to loosen up the labour market by giving companies the right to negotiate working hours and wages.
But the party political broadcasts are something of a counterintuitive insight into each candidate’s ethos and the psyche of the nation. In his moment onscreen, the leftist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, laid out his plans to add €2 to the national minimum wage and cap top incomes at €360,000 a year. His producers’ cherry-red colour palette said even more; Mélenchon is a man with concrete left-leaning plans.
François Hollande is all about égalité, “France’s soul is equality,” he declared to a cheering crowd. And now for the slogan; “The republic is now, justice is now, change is now.” Classic. Robespierre couldn’t have said it better himself. Hollande is making a smooth semantic move for a country in an existential crisis.
For Nicolas Sarkozy’s TV slot, the incumbent president surrounded by the glare of a stark, royal blue backdrop, spoke about authority, hard work, and responsibility; classic centre-right fixes for a nation in dire straits.
Strikingly, the far right figurehead Marine Le Pen didn’t mention Islam or even immigration. Instead, her maudlin moment on air – sans music – promised a 20 per cent cut in fuel duty and a 5 per cent reduction in utility bills. She blasts the “president of purchasing despair” and declares that she is the “only candidate of popular revolt who doesn’t fear the ruling castes”.
Oh, and don’t forget the maverick candidate Jacques Cheminade’s plans to build a “thermonuclear corridor” between the Earth and Mars (egalité indeed; French laws give everyone equal airtime and Cheminade is no exception, however bonkers he may be). The broadcasts avoid a blatant, harrowing issue preoccupying France – the lone gunman that took the lives of three soldiers and then three Jewish children and a Rabbi in March, has changed the ethos of this race. Beyond the TV façade, the French are discussing not just economics and purchasing power but the very essence of their identity. The idea of Frenchness is at the heart of the presidential battle. Its essence, the multi-cultural model, and France’s secular constitution are all being debated. But not on TV. At least, not at the moment. However, the French nation with its solid philosophical foundations – this birthplace of existentialism, post-modernism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Rousseau – has starting musing about its own society.
La Belle France is looking for a statesman to lead the way on what it really stands for. It’s this discourse that will be in the minds of voters as they make their decisions in the ballot boxes, from Marseille to Montpellier, come 6 May.