A Bizarre Political Comedy

Why France's Political Ringleaders Don't Pass Muster

Nicolas Sarkozy has used his country's recent tragedy -- the killing spree by French-born 24-year-old Mohamed Merah, a self-proclaimed radical Muslim -- as an opportunity to put his campaign on hold. Looking every bit a president (read: not a candidate), Sarkozy responded with solemnity to the rampage that left seven dead -- he rose to the occasion by organizing a national funeral ceremony. Yet, during the funeral, which was televised live, the other candidates elbowed each other to appear in front of the camera, and it became clear how political this mourning period had become. Uncouth, perhaps, but the show must go on.

Of course, the inability of France's intelligence services to prevent the attacks might have undermined Sarkozy's security record, but on balance this incident has energized the president's limping campaign. Polls immediately bumped in his favor. With his bold stance in a time of tragedy, Sarkozy reminded the French that he is the man in charge and could continue to be so for the next five years, should they desire stability in troubled times. He also signified to his opponents that he still has the leading role and that he can set the tempo of the political circus of an election season.

Above all else, this election has become a bizarre political comedy. The main characters are weak campaigners who echo familiar, hackneyed lines. Sarkozy's repeated pledges to "fight and defeat unemployment" while jobless numbers are on the rise make him appear a tired hero. Meanwhile, both the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen and the far-left, anticapitalist Parti de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, attract angry, energized crowds. Their anti-European discourse, inflammatory Islamophobia, and anti-elite mishmash resonate with a population in anguish. While unemployment is on the rise and the public deficit measures 5.2 percent of GDP, however, the campaign has largely sidestepped the dismal issue of the economy, even though it is arguably the foremost challenge facing France today.

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