With the first round of the French presidential election just days away, the foreign press has weighed in.
Opinions vary, but a glance at recent editorials, articles, and reports from correspondents for publications abroad reveals a few trends: incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy has lost his lustre; Socialist challenger François Hollande is a middling candidate, but has managed to coast atop the anti-Sarkozy tide; centrist François Bayrou’s campaign is a flop; far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is an effective communicator of toxic ideas; and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is questionable in substance, but dazzling in style.
Here is a sampling of the latest reviews of the main French presidential candidates from media around the world.
The sitting centre-right president has got largely negative press for not living up to the promise of his widely admired 2007 campaign and the start of his first term. An editorial in left-leaning British daily The Guardian noted that “Sarkozy's brilliance as a communicator shines no more”, and compared him to “a magician who has gone through his box of tricks”. Pondering what went wrong, the editorial concluded that “his big handicap is his own personality”.
Other publications lamented Sarkozy’s pandering to the far-right to get a leg up on rival Hollande. “President Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election campaign in France is getting a little desperate, and more than a little ugly,” read a scathing editorial in The New York Times, which in the past has had kinder words for the French president. “Regrettably, Mr. Sarkozy has no problem being frivolous or cruel if it means he can peel away some of [Marine Le Pen’s] voters.”
Argentinian daily La Nacion specified: “Sarkozy continues to abuse language and confuse basic concepts such as religion and race.” The newspaper singled out his statement that two of the soldiers killed by Mohammed Merah in March in the south of France were also “Muslims, at least in appearance”. “As if all Muslims on Earth were supposed to look Arab,” the editorial noted witheringly.
Even business paper Financial Times has dumped the French president. After Sarkozy took issue with the publication’s criticism of his handling of the economy, the Financial Times published an editorial bluntly entitled: “Yeah, well – we don't like you either, Sarko”.
Response to Hollande’s campaign in the foreign press has often been coloured by almost bemused wonder at how an uninspiring candidate has ended up at the presidency’s doorstep. For The New York Times, Hollande’s success can partly be explained by what the French want their politicians to look and sound like – especially in the wake of a brash, relatively unrefined president like Sarkozy. “Hollande provides a quainter and, for many, more comfortable vision of what a French politician should be,” read a profile of the candidate in The New York Times. “With his distaste for the rich and his lack of ostentation, Hollande represents a return to traditional French politics.”
A profile in The Guardian also saw Hollande benefitting from the contrast with Sarkozy. “[Hollande] reasons that after five years of the testosterone-fuelled, frenetic, rightwing Nicolas Sarkozy…this is the moment for a Mr. Ordinary,” the article assessed.
Even The Economist, the weekly magazine known for its right-leaning economic outlook, praised Hollande for doing “a good job of appearing sympathetic and solemn”, nothing that he “has deftly turned the campaign into a referendum on Mr. Sarkozy”.
Centrist Italian daily La Stampa has been harder on the Socialist, zeroing in on what they describe as his terminal blandness. “Hollande seems so nice and so honest,” read one editorial. “But he comes off as a local bureaucrat. We don’t know what’s worse: his speeches or his delivery.”
Foreign journalists have marvelled at the far-left candidate’s ability to draw throngs of supporters to rallies and rise in polls, despite what many depict as out-of-touch policy proposals and questionable political attitudes. Left-wing Argentinian publication Pagina 12 noted: “Whether or not one adheres to his ideas, his candidacy has been delightful. Even his ideological enemies recognise his charisma, combativeness, and talent.”
Centrist Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera indeed admired Mélenchon’s “political masterstroke: succeeding in shaking off the ex-Trotskyist label and affiliation with outdated ideologies.”
In the New York Times Opinion pages, Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history in Texas, wrote that “Mélenchon’s politics are unabashedly radical (and for many critics utterly impractical),” but added that “he channels in remarkable ways the anxiety of a growing number of French citizens.”
New York Times editorialist John Vinocur was more sceptical. He accused the candidate of “infantilising” the French and slammed him for foreign policy leanings that Vinocur mockingly summarised as amounting to: “Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is a hero, the Chinese invasion of Tibet was justified, and Cuba isn’t a dictatorship”.
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Marine Le Pen
Vinocur also had harsh words for the far-right candidate, writing that she “summons French instincts in the direction of bigotry and spite” albeit “with less of a growl than her father”.
But while British tabloid The Daily Mail dismissed Le Pen for “spouting her inflammatory nonsense”, an editorialist for left-leaning Italian daily La Repubblica admitted her ability to enthral supporters – including those not pre-disposed to like her politics. “Her voice has a slight masculine hint to it, but not too much,” he wrote. “Like any good lawyer, she knows how to control how she comes off and to polish her arguments.”
Centrist Bayrou has been either ignored or roundly panned by the international press for failing to capitalise on his potential in appealing to moderates not impressed with either right- or left-wing candidates. “Bayrou’s problem, though simple, is one that cannot be fixed too easily: he is nice, reasonable … and mind-blowingly boring,” read one editorial in The Guardian, which proceeded to heap unflattering adjectives on the politician: “Indecisive, characterless, insipid, monotonous, platitudinous, unexciting.”