It’s certainly not a kill shot, but the re-election hopes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy have taken another groan-eliciting body check—this time from Elysée predecessor Jacques Chirac, who said he’d vote for a leading Socialist rival François Hollande over his fellow conservative. However, given Chirac’s previous status as the rightist the left loved to hate most before Sarkozy inherited that position, the former president’s vow of support forced Hollande to wave off what he clearly considered a political cadeau impoisonné.
Chirac’s comment advances our recent items on the former president’s new Sarkozy-swiping memoir , and on the lead over Sarkozy that polls still give the principal contenders in the Socialist Party’s primary for the 2012 presidential election. Chirac made his remark Saturday alongside Hollande during a museum tour Saturday in the south-central Corrèze region of France–the area in which both men set their electoral roots. Over the years, the effort each politician has invested representing and defending the interest of local voters has caused their mutual respect to grown in spite of their frontal clashes on the national level. It was no doubt because of that (and due to the increasing desire to be rid of Sarkozy) that when he was asked about Hollande’s hopes to win the Socialist primary next autumn en route for a run on the Elysée next spring, Chirac replied “I can tell you, I’d vote for François Hollande!”Chirac then conditioned that support by saying he’d rather vote for his long-time lieutenant and current Foreign Minister Alain Juppé. But with Sarkozy fully expected to claim their party’s presidential candidacy as the incumbent’s unwritten right, his posit of Juppé running—and his support of Hollande in the absence of that–sounded more like Chirac employing wishful thinking as a means of making his disdain of Sarkozy clear.
“I like Alain Juppé a lot,” a beaming Chirac told Hollande (and buzzing press scrum). “But since he won’t be a candidate, I’ll vote for you!”
Initially, Hollande appeared flattered by the elder statesman’s expression of support and admiration. Quickly, however, Hollande apparently thought through the less-than-enthusiastic way fellow Socialists might react to Chirac’s endorsement—and how conservatives might use it against a leftist who critics say tilts too far to the center. As a result, Hollande was soon sprint tip-toeing away from Chirac’s embrace. “It was a joke,” Hollande explained. “He said it to annoy his friends, and with a laughing tone. I don’t want to take it for more than the compliment it was…It mustn’t be seen as a declaration (of support).”
It’s true there are several reasons why Chirac’s verbal vote for Hollande is at least as much a (rare) demonstration of personal admiration trumping party politics and ideology than it is pure revenge against Sarkozy in the form of betrayal. As noted above, despite their warring for enemy camps nationally, Chirac and Hollande have come to personally appreciate—and work with—one another locally in Corrèze, where both are known as being particularly close to voters (in sharp contrast to Sarkozy’s remote, insulated, elitist reputation). Meanwhile even if it is an exceptional case of breaking party ranks, Chirac’s embrace of a former Socialist foe is by no means a game-changer for 2012: Hollande still faces a tough primary battle with Socialist leader Martine Aubry before he can even hope to face off with the formidable campaigning heavyweight Sarkozy has proven to be.
However, it is yet another reflection of the deep unhappiness with the current president’s leadership—and the growing anyone-but-Sarkozy sentiment that has infected even conservative ranks. That will prove an enormous hurdle for Sarkozy as he seeks a re-election bid that’s increasingly looking like a long shot. Meanwhile, even if Chirac may be the new best buddy Hollande doesn’t want hanging around him (at least in public), he can take private satisfaction in it as yet another sign of his own rising political fortunes and popularity that just last week pushed him past Aubry in polls as the leader in their primary battle.