France’s Marathon Presidential Campaign Set To Finally Begin–Sort Of

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Socialist frontrunner Martine Aubry, center. (Photo: Dupuy Florent / SIPA)

French Socialists hoping to win their party’s presidential primary and qualify for France’s 2012 general election are lined up, throwing elbows, and ready to sprint when the gun for that nomination contest is fired Tuesday. And if that starting line jostling weren’t proof enough that  race for the Elysée is about to begin, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy made its immediacy even more evident by undertaking a series of high-profile appearances designed to divert as much media attention as possible from opposition leftists, and back on himself as the top dog they’re all dying to replace.  In other words, fully 10 months before French voters cast ballots in late April, campaigning for France’s 2012 presidential race is getting under way in earnest this week in a country that has never exactly shown huge enthusiasm for marathons  as a spectator sport.

The frenetic shadow boxing that has taken place before presidential hostilities become more frontal next year were demonstrated Monday by two leaders who haven’t even announced their intentions to run yet—though neither really needs to. First of those was Socialist leader Martine Aubry, whose earlier disinclination to participate in her party’s primary reversed itself when plans to storm the Elysée by her erstwhile ally, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, imploded with his New York arrest for attempted rape in May. With former front-runner DSK sidelined from politics—possibly for good—Aubry has been gradually building up expectations of her own entry in to the Socialist primary. That drum roll became deafening in recent days as orchestrated press leaks trumpeted Aubry’s plans to announce her candidacy Tuesday morning from her stronghold in the northern city, Lille. That is timed to coincide with the formal opening of the Socialist primary process—one in which competitors must officially enter the race between June 28 and July 13, before two rounds of voting to select the winner in October.

That only increased the determination of the other undeclared candidate for 2012 to take as much thunder out of the Socialist primary’s kick off as possible: President Sarkozy—who has spent an enormous amount of time and energy preparing to make a re-election run that he’s been just as diligent in not admitted he’s dying to contest. Awaiting Aubry’s announcement coinciding with the opening of the Socialist primary process on Tuesday, on Monday Sarkozy held only his fourth Elysée press conference since winning the presidency—the first of two high-profile appearances in just 48 hours. On Tuesday Sarkozy has planned a similarly media-attracting visit to the west of France to discuss food safety amid surging public fears over E. coli outbreaks. It may well be a sinister forecast of the dirty presidential campaign to come when the incumbent seeks to poison his rival’s entry in the race with the assist of the scariest food bacteria of the moment.

Though even that effort will not deprive Aubry of all press attention, Sarkozy’s visibility early this week in the media glare is obviously designed to make all other political developments look like bush league stuff compared to his own presidential doings. It’s also setting the tone for what evidently will be his main re-election message. As the economic, investment, and development themes central to Sarkozy’s press conference Monday signaled, the Elysée is planning on presenting its responsible stewardship of a still mending national and global economy as a strength voters would be unwise to abandon in favor of supposedly untested and inexperienced Socialist rivals. Still, as reaction to his Monday pitch demonstrated, that may prove a tough sell. Though defense of his record as a reformer, cost-cutter, deficit-slasher, and navigator of economic crises may have gotten by a room of comfortably employed journalists, it seemed less convincing to the majority of French voters who say in polls their economic and employment fortunes have rarely been worse. Aubry—who when last in national government in the late-1990s ushered in France’s 35 hour work week amid an economic boom—may actually not look so bad by comparison as the dangerous devil Sarkozy suggests is France doesn’t know.

It’s still unclear when Sarkozy will announce his re-election plans—though both media electoral and political fad seem to suggest he may delay his announcements until as late as next year. That waiting game reflects concerns that by declaring intent too early, contenders may risk losing whatever early boost their entries generate early on—and soon become boring, old hat candidate in voters’ eyes. Indeed, despite the enormous expectation and support Strauss-Kahn’s looming run generated, he never actually got around to confirming his intent to run in the primaries or for the presidency before his arrest ended that well-planned bid before it even began. Similarly, Aubry has avoided talking about throwing her hat into the ring for the Socialist nomination since Strauss-Kahn’s fall made that a foregone conclusion. Presumably, she hasn’t factored any pending expiration of a statute of limitations into the timing of her announcement—finally—that she’ll run.

More probable than that, Aubry may have decided to declare on the first day official of the Socialist primary process for sheer novelty’s sake: she seems to be the only leftist not to have entered the game before the season even began. Indeed, in contrast to the coyness that she, Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn have demonstrated, the half-dozen Socialists seeking the party nomination dismayed strategists—and generated cries of foul from one another—by announcing their candidacy weeks or months before the primary process even opened. Some have even done so repeatedly.  On Sunday, 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal announced—once again–her determination to win the upcoming party primary that polls indicate will be a Hail Mary effort at best.

In doing so, perhaps Royal was looking less to manufacture renewed excitement over her old news bid, and instead seeking to show she’s already got one aspect of presidential thinking down cold. After all, her Sunday appearance did manage to siphon some of the advance media attention away from Sarkozy’s Monday press conference, which itself was aimed at diverting the press from Aubry’s Tuesday announcement. And it provided more evidence France’s 2012 presidential race is already under way—and likely to leave us all exhausted when it ends 10 months from now.