Paris: Like Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy swept to power on a wave of hope for change. Sarkozy`s wave crashed on the global financial crisis and his own failings. On Sunday, the French leader faces a tough fight against nine challengers in presidential elections awash in fear and anger.
This has been a race of negative emotion and nostalgia for a more protected past: One of the world`s top tourist destinations and biggest economies, France is feeling down about its debts, its immigrants, its stagnant paychecks, and above all its future.
To voters, the conservative Sarkozy gets much of the blame. While he`s likely to make it past Sunday`s first-round voting and into the decisive second round May 6, polls show his support waning.
They predict another man will trounce Sarkozy in the runoff and take over the Elysee Palace: Socialist Francois Hollande.
Under a quirk of French electoral rules, balloting got under way Saturday in France`s embassies and overseas holdings, starting in tiny Saint Pierre and Miquelon — islands south of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Campaigning and the release of poll data have been suspended until the first-round results come in Sunday evening.
Surprises may await, like a surge by the anti-immigrant far right or utopian far left. How votes for the other myriad candidates shake out Sunday will weigh heavily on the remainder of the campaign, on the makeup of the future government and on parliamentary elections in June.
And that will weigh on the fate of France — and a struggling Europe in which it plays a central role.
Fear of finance
Hollande, in his Mr. Nice Guy kind of way, has tapped into a fear of the free market that has always held more sway in France than almost anywhere in the West, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the era of Occupy Wall Street and anti-banker backlash.
Hollande wants to tax high-income earners at 75 percent and reconsider a hard-won European fiscal treaty meant to stem the continent`s debt crisis. He says it`s too focused on cost-cutting and hurts ordinary folks.
Investors worry that France — no matter who`s in charge, but especially if it`s Hollande — is on a path to debt disaster if it doesn`t tighten public finances and slash or rethink its generous welfare benefits.
Yet Hollande is just one of five leftists in Sunday`s race — and he`s the most moderate and pragmatic of the bunch. If fiery rival Jean-Luc Melenchon, with his red neck-scarves and rallies thick with communist red flags, scores strongly, he and his voters will press Hollande to swing his own policies even farther leftward.
Speaking to international reporters Friday, Melenchon — who wants to tax the ultra-rich at 100 percent — called international finance "parasitic." He criticized US hegemony and military might, looking instead to communist China for partnership.
Fear of Islam
On the other side of the spectrum, the campaign fear-mongering has a different focus: France`s No. 2 religion.
Far right candidate Marine Le Pen rails against the "Islamization" of France and made a stink about the widespread availability of halal meat and Muslims praying on sidewalks for lack of mosque space.
The rhetoric horrifies many voters and stigmatizes France`s estimated 5 million Muslims — Western Europe`s largest Muslim population. But it`s hit a nerve among many French, especially after a suspected gunman killed Jewish schoolchildren and paratroopers in the name of radical Islam in a rampage last month.
Le Pen — and many of her voters — link Islam with immigration, since many French Muslims have family roots in former colonies in Africa. And they think France has too much of both.
At an exuberant Le Pen rally in Paris this week, 32-year-old Fabien Engelmann of Hayange in eastern France said she`s "the only one who can defend the country" against multiple threats from the "Europe of Brussels" to Islamization.
And Sarkozy has followed Le Pen`s lead.
He championed a ban on Islamic face veils that he says imprison women and go against French values, and says the country should slash the number of immigrants it takes in. And he`s threatened to pull France out of Europe`s border-free travel zone if more is not done to tackle illegal immigration, an idea gaining traction in other capitals.
Anger at Sarkozy
More than anything else, this French election campaign is a referendum on the man currently in charge.
Sarkozy inspired voters in 2007 with pledges to break with the past and make France a more dynamic economy.
After an initial wave of reforms, his momentum fizzled. His stormy personal life got in the way: He divorced months into office, then quickly married former supermodel Carla Bruni, and became seen as a bling-bling president more concerned with pleasing his super-rich friends than serving the public.
He enjoyed a string of foreign policy successes, improving relations with the United States and Israel, leading an international airstrike campaign in Libya, rallying European partners to stem Europe`s financial crisis.
But voters at home felt forgotten and hurt by a presidency that included France`s worst recession since World War II.
Hollande, despite a bland persona and few eye-catching campaign ideas, has been more popular than Sarkozy for months.
Sarkozy showed signs of a possible comeback once he hit the campaign trail. The shooting rampage in southern France also gave him a platform to appear presidential and project the tough guy image that helped launch him to national prominence.
But in recent days his support has lagged again. The last polls before the election, released Friday, show Sarkozy slipping a few points behind Hollande in the first round — and a crushing 10 to 15 points away from victory in the runoff.
In a Friday night rally in the Riviera city of Nice, Sarkozy sought to distance himself from the far right and appealed to his followers: "We must win!"
Hollande looked calm and easygoing as he walked down the main street of Vitry-le-Francois in eastern France on Friday, stopping in a pizzeria, several bars and cafes and a clothing shop to chat.
Crowds were passionate in the nearby town of Saint Dizier, where factories have closed and unemployment is a key concern.
"Francois for president!" fans chanted, pushing and shoving to shake Hollande`s hand.
Other chants targeted his chief rival: "Sarkozy, you`re finished!"