The two-round vote to elect France's next president takes place on 22 April and 6 May 2012, but the election campaign is already underway with high-profile speeches from the two presumed leading candidates - the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his socialist rival François Hollande. But if Hollande sought to seize the initiative by being first to publish his election platform, what is striking about the opening exchanges is that "Sarko" seems to be adopting the pose of a challenger rather than a sitting president.
His effort was clear when he launched his counter-project to Hollande's manifesto in a telecast broadcast live on six national channels on 29 January 2012. There was a certain oddity in Sarkozy promising many changes - and reforms of his own unpopular pet projects - he had not already thought during five years in office. (They include a revamping of his past campaign slogan "work more to earn more" into a supposedly job-saving "work less to earn less".) Yet Sarko has successful form with the approach of "opposition from within"; in 2007, he promised a "break" with the past, when since 2002 he had served as interior minister in and deputy head of the president Jacques Chirac's government and leader of the governing UMP.
A burned-out case
The trick will be harder to pull off this year. Sarkozy's unpopularity, even for an outgoing president, is at historic levels. A long series of opinion polls show him trailing François Hollande and too close for comfort to Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN) in the first round of the presidential election. An IFOP poll taken the day after Sarko's TV extravaganza gave him 24.5%, far behind Hollande's 31% - though ahead of Le Pen's 19% and the centrist François Bayrou's 11.5%.
Moreover, a direct second-round contest would on current projections see Hollande defeat Sarko by 58%-42%. The unexpected popularity of the previously unheralded socialist greatly worries UMP deputies, Sarko's colleagues and right-wing voters, who openly despise the bland Hollande.
Sarkozy's problems go deeper than the polls. Many who in his early period in office lauded his aura of boldness and decisiveness now feel tired of his arrogance, posturing and contradictions, and dislike his closeness to big business. A deteriorating economic and social situation gives them no reason to return to the fold. What's left is a characteristically opportunist attempt to defuse some of his opponent's proposals, copy others and lambast the rest as "soft" and thus re-energise the French centre-right's traditional voters.
These disappointed voters are likely to demand more. The right, after all, has been in power for a decade, and it is five years since Nicolas Sarkozy's frantic energy persuaded the French to vote for him and leaders from many countries to see him as a modernising figure who would take France toward an à la française version of Anglo-Saxon liberalism.
But France's budget deficit has since 2002 doubled (from €853 billions [$1,116bn] to €1,689 billions [$2,209bn]), an increase of 57% to 85% of GDP; the trade deficit has reversed from a small surplus to a deficit of €69.6bn; 700,000 jobs have been lost, with the unemployment-rate at 9.9% and rising; and France, long an industrialised power, has fallen to among the least industrialised European Union states.
In addition, Sarkozy's controversial policy of tax rebates to the wealthiest has cost France €630 billions in extra public debt since 2007 (the estimate of Mélanie Delattre & Emmanuel Lévyas's study, A five-year term costing 500 billions). The gap between France and Germany, whose example the outgoing president always says he wants to follow, is growing.
There are more problems on the social front. Crime has gone down since Sarkozy became interior minister in 2002 (and this is a global trend as well as a French one), but violent crime and burglaries are up - despite Sarko's many anti-crime and anti-immigration bills (to reflect the ideological link he has insistently made). There has also been a notable increase in social inequalities. The gloomy atmosphere was reflected in a 2011 study by a former French ombudsman and UMP minister who warned that reforms which invariably involve belt-tightening, outsourcing, pervasive fear of globalisation, deteriorating social protection, restricted pensions and growing unemployment will end in social "burnout".
Sarkozy's unsavoury connections and close associates - magistrates are investigating illegal financing of the 1995 and 2007 presidential-election campaigns (in the fomrer he was budget minister of candidate Edouard Balladur) - have further dented his image. The French seem ready to vote for the figure with the best chance of ousting him.
A curious contradiction
This seems to be François Hollande, who is cleverly presenting himself as a "normal candidate" and campaigning hard to overcome inherited difficulties - such as that he comes from a Parti socialiste (PS) long sunk in factional strife and lacking either imagination or credible policies, and that he is an uninspiring speaker with no government experience and a reputation for inconsistency (thus the nickname "Flamby", after a brand of milky jelly).
But Hollande is going some way to compensate for these defects. He has published a detailed and moderate platform, the first social-democratic one in the history of a party long proud of its leftist roots, with no bold or too costly pledges voters know he could not fulfil in these dire times. "I don't want to come back to you within six months to tell you I can't fulfil my promises", he has said, looking resolute for the first time.
Yet Sarkozy and Hollande won't be allowed to dominate the race. A worrying factor is the irresistible rise of Marine Le Pen, who represents a more palatable (though this remains to be seen) version of far-right ideology, one distanced from her father's more or less open anti-semitism and admiration for the Third Reich. If Jean-Marie Le Pen was against the system, she wants to get inside it and achieve power. Her opposrtunity is the economic crisis, which she has allowed her to make inroads to voters of all classes with her anti-euro, anti-Europe, and anti-foreigner (i.e. non-white foreigner) platform. An IFOP poll for the communist daily L'Humanité shows her just behind Hollande among trade unionists and (a historic first) ahead among non-unionised workers. The FN is replacing the Communist Party (now at 2%-3%) as the vehicle of protest votes.
It is also a negative rather than a positive choice. The French are deeply disappointed with politicians of all stripes. An Ipsos poll for the daily Libération finds only 22% considering that politicians feel bound by moral rules; a Cevipof poll for the weekly Le Point shows that 83% think politicians don't care about them.
This is a society far gloomier in 2012 even than in 2007, and French despair has (most analysts agree) been nurtured by President Sarkozy's policies and personality as much as by the severe crisis. In France's monarchical tradition, which has remained vivid, heads of state are expected to behave as such and to protect their citizens. Sarkozy has let them down with his egocentric, erratic and insensitive behaviour as well as by failing to keep his promises (even if, as former interior minister Charles Pasqua once said, "promises only bind those who listen to them", words still matter to the French - something Hollande acknowledges by referring to a "presidency of the word").
The most symptomatic finding on France's current mood, and perhaps an appropriate challenge to its discredited politicians in this election year (with legislative elections due on 10 June and 17 June 2012), may be a Gallup international survey in December 2011, which confirms the French to be the most pessimistic people in the world - "ahead" of Nigerians and Iraqis.
At the same time, their birth-rate of over 2% makes them the most prolific nation in Europe. What better sign of optimism can there be than making the most long-term, emotional and (for many) costly investment of all? Perhaps out of this curious French contradiction, the seed of much-needed political life can emerge.