by Chu Lan Huong
Next month, French voters will cast ballots for the nation's next president, in a close battle between incumbent centre-right candidate Nicholas Sarkozy and the Socialist standard bearer, Francois Hollande.
The election takes place in the context of the ongoing eurozone debt crisis and the tensions it is creating within the European Union. Voters want to see how the nation's next leader will help France, Europe's second largest economy, escape from being dragged deeper into the crisis and a possible recession. Although both Sarkozy and Hollande have focused on their campaigns on speeding up economic growth, as well as dealing with social issues.
As the incumbent, and the candidate of the right-wing Union for Popular Movement (UPM), Sarkozy is an experienced politician whose 2007 campaign based on security issues and economic renewal enabled him to defeat his Socialist Party opponent, Sogolene Royal.
This time around, Sarkozy faces a more daunting task. His record in the past five years has been unconvincing, with slow economic growth, a falling standard of living, and a 10-per-cent unemployment rate, the highest in the past 12 years. France's public debt reached 1.7 trillion euros (US$2.2 trillion), purchasing power has fallen, and the gap between rich and poor widened.
With the slogan "A Strong France", Sarkozy says his economic policies save France from sinking further into the economic and public-debt crises. In a second term, he promises to create more jobs, promote economic development and further raise France's position in the international arena.
"I will be different," Sarkozy told the weekly Paris Match. "I will already have been president for five years, and you don't repeat mistakes already made."
He said that if he won the election he would take a step back from dealing with daily issues and focus more on leading structural reforms. He also promised not to raise taxes or cut back on social services.
"I'm making a commitment: there will not be any new tax increases," he said. "I've never believed in austerity measures – reducing salaries and pensions – which I have refused, unlike what's happened with our neighbours."
Sarkozy has once again raised the immigration issue, one which many believe helped him gain an edge in the 2007 vote. To gain the support from far-right voters, he said at an election rally he would withdraw France from the Schengen accords which allow free circulation of people within most of the EU, unless the bloc hardens its immigration policy.
"I want a Europe that protects its citizens", Sarkozy was quoted by Reuters as saying in his largest rally on March 11, with an estimated 50,000 gathered in a hangar in Paris, close to the city's airport. "At a time of economic crisis, if Europe doesn't pick those who can enter its borders, it won't be able to finance its welfare state any longer... We can't leave the management of migration flows to technocrats and tribunals."
In the 17 years since President Francois Mitterrand left the Elysee Palace in 1995, France's hasn't seen a left-wing president. So, when nominating Hollande, its first secretary, the Socialist Party seemed to sense its time was coming. Socialist Party victories in local and senate races have given the party and additional advantage, and Hollande has led Sarkozy in polls for months.
Hollande' slogan is "Change is Now", and he is putting his primary emphasis on youth. The French press agency AFP reported that in a speech in London in February, Hollande came back again and again to the challenge of youth unemployment across the EU, saying, "Youth is the priority for all progressive in Europe. We need solidarity between generations, a contract of the generations."
Hollande outlined a 60-point list of policy proposals, including the separation of retail banking from riskier investment-banking operations; raising taxes on corporations, banks and the wealthy; creating 60,000 teaching jobs; bringing the official retirement age back down to 60 from 62; creating subsidised jobs in areas of high youth unemployment; and creating a public investment bank. Both Sarkozy and Hollande have pledged to reduce the budget deficit to 3 per cent in 2013.
However, the shootings of Jewish schoolchildren and French soldiers this month by an Islamist gunman have upended France's election campaign and resurrected Sarkozy's prospects, Reuters reported.
The first opinion poll to be taken after Mohamed Merah, 23, committed a deadly attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse showed Sarkozy surging past Hollande ahead of the April 22 vote.
According to Viet Nam Television's correspondent in Paris, Le Hong Quang, the attack has affected the election process.
"Whenever issues of security and immigration occur during elections, the right-wing and far-right always take the points," Quang said, noting that the recent attack overshadowed other issues in the minds of voters.
However, political analysts said French voters remain more interested in issues relevant to their daily lives in the long term, such as economic growth and social welfare, especially in the context of the European crisis. — VNS