For someone who claims he’s going to steer clear of campaigning during the run-up to the second round of the local elections on Sunday, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has a funny way of remaining silent.
On Tuesday he put in an appearance in the southern city of Toulon – long a favourite stomping ground of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National (National Front, FN) party.
And it was surely no coincidence that he was just a hop, step and jump away from France’s second city, Marseille. After all that’s where the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP) party candidate, Jean-Claude Gaudin, is facing an almighty challenge from the Socialist party contender, Jean-Noël Guérini, in the mayoral race.
Gaudin, who has held the post for the past 10 years, is not only a close buddy of Sarkozy, he’s also the UMP’s vice-president. Defeat on Sunday would therefore not reflect too well on the president.
But let’s remember Sarkozy himself is not campaigning. He has already said as much on several occasions. After initially insisting that it was the job of the president to rally the troops, he saw his popularity ratings plummet and, deciding both he and his party would fare better if he kept a lower profile, left the bulk of the work to his prime minister, François Fillon.
So there was no way that Tuesday’s speech in which he addressed the FN’s pet issues of immigration, integration and national identity was a campaign address. Nor was it an appeal to a section of the voters that was vital in securing his election in last year’s presidential race.
No, no, this was, as Sarkozy insisted, a call for people simply to go out and cast their ballots on Sunday – regardless of how they were going to vote.
Clearly he had one eye on the disappointing turnout in last weekend’s first round. At just 65.7 per cent, it was the lowest in local elections since 1959.
His other eye, reporters have suggested, was on his mobile ‘phone, scanning for incoming text messages, just as he was caught doing on camera during a state visit to Saudi Arabia back in January.
He repeated Fillon’s assertion that these elections were not a vote on the success of government policies – or the lack thereof. Voting should not hinge on national issues, he argued, but be driven by local matters closer to the hearts of the electorate.
Such statements though do not seem to be falling on particularly sympathetic ears and perhaps only serve to underline his unpopularity and the general dissatisfaction felt throughout much of the country with his inability to deliver on his own electoral promise of increasing purchasing power.
Marseille isn’t the only traditional UMP stronghold under threat on Sunday. Nice, Strasbourg and Toulouse could all swing to the Socialists.
Further proof perhaps that Sarkozy himself doesn’t believe in what he’s saying is that although he might maintain the local elections are not a vote on national issues, he has also promised to draw lessons from whatever the electorate might say.
And he’s slated to put in another two non-campaigning appearances in two other towns before the week is up.
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