Hope for Sarkozy Yet: Socialist Rival Losing Support

The French president is gaining ground on his challenger.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy is gaining ground on his Socialist Party rival, a poll released on Sunday showed. If elections were held today, Sarkozy and his main challenger, François Hollande, would win 26 and 28 percent in a first round of voting respectively. That’s the smallest margin between the two registered yet after Hollande enjoyed a ten point lead over the incumbent in October.

In a runoff, the poll showed Hollande winning with 54 percent of the vote. His second round lead over Sarkozy has been cut in half since the socialists nominated the former party boss for the presidency three months ago.

Presidential elections in France require a runoff between the two top tier candidates when none wins an outright majority of the votes during the first round. The second round in this election cycle is scheduled for May 6.

The left is anxious for an election victory after winning scores of local elections in recent years and securing, for the first time in more than half a century, a majority in the upper house of parliament in September.

There hasn’t been a socialist in the Élysée Palace since François Mitterrand left office more than fifteen years ago but France’s economic woes and feeble fiscal policy could deliver a blow to Sarkozy’s reelection hopes. The austerity measures introduced by his prime minister, François Fillon, have been composed largely of tax increases and it seems doubtful that they will manage to reduce the government’s shortfall to under 3 percent of gross domestic product in 2012.

The one structural reform enacted during Sarkozy’s tenure has been a raise in the retirement age from sixty to 62 years of age but France’s public pension system is projected to fall into deficit again by 2018 in spite of it.

The socialists, who will probably win a lower house majority in June’s parliamentary election and therefore deliver the next government, are not expected to enact deeper spending cuts and push for more comprehensive entitlement reforms than the center-right has so far.

Even if Sarkozy is reelected, his ability to direct domestic policy will be inhibited by a left-wing majority legislature. The one possible advantage for the president is the socialists’ willingness to see more European economic integration as a solution to the continent’s spiraling debt crisis.

Sarkozy must be careful not to promote the euro project too energetically for it would enable the isolationist Front national to attack him from the right. Some 20 percent of French voters would back the far right’s presidential candidate and leader, Marine Le Pen, who advocates a French withdrawal from the eurozone.