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French Election 2012: Top 10 Things to Watch For in Sarkozy vs. Hollande Presidential Debate

As France prepares to go the polls this coming Sunday, the French people will be able to watch a debate between the two challengers for the presidency on Wednesday night. In the blue corner will be incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, with a strong international record of action but poor domestic track record. In the red corner will be François Hollande, inexperienced but with popular support.

Unlike the U.S. elections, there will be only one debate, one chance for both men to leave their final mark. Here’s what you should look out for during the debate:

1. The dire state of the French economy. France is currently inhabited by Harry Potter and scores of fellow wizards, because the French people are afraid to mention the modern-day Voldemort, 'The Economy.' France faces a national debt of 90% of GDP by the end of 2012; the French government has not run a surplus in over 35 years; the French state itself counts for 56% of the economy; unemployment is climbing to over 9.3%, and will likely go over 10% by the end of 2012. These figures make most economists cry; but no candidate has truly tackled this sensitive issue. Will the candidates go for the pie-in-the-sky vote winner approach? Or are Hollande and Sarkozy really fearful sorcerers in disguise?

2. Sarkozy’s Sneering. Sarkozy sneers. We all know that. He sneers at political rivals. He sneers at foreigners. He sneers at journalists. Occasionally, he will foray into the French public and sneer at them too. He is – if anything – the sneerer-in-chief. This evening should provide ample opportunity for the seasoned Sarko watcher to witness his world class facial expression in action. It is drinking game worthy.

3. The Hollande Wisecrack. For those of you who do not speak French, Hollande is famous for his frequent joke-making. Outsiders assume that it is somewhat of an anathema to be a funny Frenchman, and they’re right. However, Hollande’s joke making is very popular in France. During a recent local election, he attained 94% of the vote, after which he remarked: “Even on the darkest days of certain dictatorships they didn’t get that…” Boom. Hysterics in the audience. Tonight we will see if “Mr. Little Jokes” (as Sarkozy refers to him) will lighten the TV debate with some quick, very French wit.

4.  Immigration & National Identity. During a recent speech in Toulouse – scene of the recent shootings – Sarkozy made a speech during which he made reference to securing ‘borders’ dozens of times. His tactic was to reassure far right voters that he is their man, the 'dude.' Following Marine Le Pen’s announcement that she would abstain in the forthcoming ballot, Sarkozy will be working even harder to gain her FN voters.

5. Patronizing remarks about ‘inexperience’. François Hollande is a relative newcomer to the possibility of governmental power. He has never held high office. He is weak, therefore, to the charge of inexperience. Sarkozy held several key posts within the French cabinet before ascending to the lofty heights of presidential power. Jacques Chirac had been Prime Minister several times, in addition to Mayor of Paris for 18 years. The last Socialist President – François Mitterrand – was also a high ranking French politician before he became president. Inexperience rankles and charges from Nicolas Sarkozy even more so. Watch out for the subtle and not so-subtle attacks.

6. Remarks about a ‘failed’ presidency. A majority of the French people dislike Nicolas Sarkozy and view his presidency as a failure. He is liable to be attacked on his record. Sarkozy, of course, will defend his record and point to Hollande’s lack of one. It will be a brutal war of attrition.

7. Gaddafi. Good old Muammar continues to wreak havoc, even from beyond his unmarked grave in the Libyan desert. Recent allegations have surfaced about alleged funding of Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign from funds being derived of Libyan sources. Très shady. Will Hollande make a sly stab at this opaque episode? 

8. The proposed 75% tax on income over one-million Euros. By far, the most bizzare economic policy put forth by either of the two candidates. Will Hollande stand by it? Will he risk creating even more market uncertainty about his potential future role as President?

9. The German-Euro Issue. Those familiar with French politics will note the ubiquitous presence of Germany in the background. Germany looks like an over-keen and very anxious teenager waiting for its prom date to arrive, not knowing whether it will be Beauty or the Beast. Sarkozy will try and put some distance between himself and the Germans. Hollande will no doubt seek to highlight Merkozy’s cozy partnership. Whatever the result,  t will probably be the case that the next leader will eventually need to capitulate – pun unintended – to Germany. Tonight, will it be cold Turkey for Germany or ménage-à-trois.

10. Pandering to extremes. Both men pander to extremes. Sarkozy sounds like a shrill nationalist and Hollande like a crypto-Communist. This is pure political theater, designed to win votes. Both candidates – however – will argue that the other is dangerous for doing so. The irony  will be almost palpable.

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