French Socialist Party candidate François Hollande spoke at a rock and pop festival on Friday in Bourges, France. He and Nicolas Sarkozy will face off on May 6. The US elections seem tame by comparison.
PARIS — With accusations of fascism and lying, incompetence and imbecility, the French presidential campaign has been one of the nastiest in memory. One legislator from the governing party even compared the partner of the Socialist challenger to a Rottweiler.
French president and conservative candidate for the 2012 presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy, arrives to deliver a speech on April 26, in Le Raincy. With only a week to go before incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy faces off against the favored candidate, the Socialist François Hollande, the insults are flying. Mr. Sarkozy is trying to make up the gap and win back the votes of the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, while Mr. Hollande is trying to stay above the fray with professions of national unity, letting his adjutants open fire on his behalf. Mr. Sarkozy’s concentration on patriotism, protectionism, French values and his attacks on immigration and immigrants who do not assimilate into French life have prompted considerable contempt, returned in kind.
On Friday, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is supporting Mr. Hollande for the final round of voting, said on France-Inter radio that Mr. Sarkozy used language “directly taken from the collaboration” of Vichy France with Nazi Germany. He was referring to Mr. Sarkozy’s speech the day before in the suburb of Le Raincy, in which he spoke of his admiration of the police and said, “To be treated as a Fascist by a Communist is a compliment.”
Mr. Mélenchon called it “a restatement, word for word, of Pierre Laval,” referring to the French collaborationist and prime minister under Vichy. Similarly, when Mr. Sarkozy spoke of “real work” (“vrai travail”), contrasting it with those who received state salaries and assistance, Mr. Mélenchon invoked the chief of the Vichy state, Marshal Philippe Pétain, saying it was “word for word the text of a poster of Marshal Pétain in 1941.” The Communist newspaper L’Humanité piled on, printing the president’s photograph next to that of Pétain, who was convicted of treason after World War II. The night before, when pressed in a television interview, Mr. Sarkozy admitted that his choice of words about “real work” was “not a happy one,” especially after Mr. Hollande called him “the president of real unemployment.” Later Friday, Mr. Sarkozy’s spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, issued a statement demanding that Mr. Hollande “formally condemn” the “trashy words” of Mr. Mélenchon. (An equal-opportunity wordsmith, he had also called Ms. Le Pen “half-demented” and a “bat.”)
Mr. Sarkozy has portrayed Mr. Hollande as incompetent, inexperienced and soft, someone whose economic policies would reduce France to the level of Greece and Spain. He has accused Mr. Hollande of “lying from morning until night” and asked, “Can you think of a single thing that François Hollande has achieved in 30 years of politics?” In the past, he had couched his criticism more gently, saying for instance that Mr. Hollande “has talent, that’s his problem. He’s an excellent debater, but he takes the easy path a little too systematically.” When Mr. Hollande struck back after the harsher comments, Mr. Sarkozy mocked him. “When I say he lacks courage, perhaps that’s hurtful for one so sensitive,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “Frankly, can you imagine François Hollande as president, really?”
Not long ago, a frustrated Mr. Sarkozy burst out to a journalist from Le Monde: “I’m going to win, and I’m going to tell you why. He’s not good, and people begin to see it. Hollande is useless! He is useless, you understand?” For his part, Mr. Hollande, early in the campaign, characterized Mr. Sarkozy as a “sale mec,” a nasty piece of work. Imagining how Mr. Sarkozy would himself argue for re-election, Mr. Hollande said to reporters: “I’m a president who has failed for five years, I’m a nasty piece of work, but re-elect me, because in these hard times I’m the only one who can do it.”
He has tried to display a lofty indifference to attacks, and rarely calls Mr. Sarkozy by name. He says he will be prepared for fierce attacks from Mr. Sarkozy in their single televised debate next Wednesday. But he has accused his rival of being the “president of the rich” and of lying, especially when, just this week, Mr. Sarkozy said that Mr. Hollande had the support of “700 mosques” and Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Swiss scholar of Islam. Mr. Ramadan denied supporting Mr. Hollande.
Mr. Hollande’s associates are rather sharper. A spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, likened Mr. Sarkozy to “a cross between Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin,” and Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist lawmaker, called him “a spoiled brat who uses France as a toy that does not belong to him.” Delphine Batho, another Hollande spokeswoman, said “it was time to put an adult back at the head of the country.” Mr. Hollande himself said, “If I am attacked I’ll answer back, and above all when there are lies.” He knew that “by committing to this campaign I would face verbal violence,” he told the magazine Les Inrockuptibles. “I haven’t been surprised, but the right went a long way. I don’t know to how many animals I’ve been compared, but I have prepared myself and I feel I don’t have any control over it.” He did react, however, when his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, was referred to as “Valérie Rottweiler” by a legislator from Mr. Sarkozy’s party, Lionnel Luca. “And that is not nice for the dog!” Mr. Luca said.
Mr. Sarkozy, however, quickly condemned Mr. Luca’s words, equating them with attacks on his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. “When one loves someone, which is the case with Carla and me and Valérie Trierweiler and François Hollande, it is no reason to put us into the political debate and be criticized like that.”
Writing in Le Point, Pierre-Antoine Delhommais noted that Michel Serres had called this a campaign of “old grandpas.” But if he were not measuring his words, Mr. Delhommais continued, he would have called it “a campaign of bitter old farts, uptight and hateful. It is truly time that it ends.” Not that the election of 2007 was sweetness and light. The candidacy of Ségolène Royal sparked criticisms of her supposed incompetence, but tinged with sexism and mockery for her dress, her manner, her looks and her way of speaking. Mr. Sarkozy of course has always been mocked for his non-French roots, his facial tics, his diminutive size and elevated shoes.