Fading Sarkozy places bets on Villepinte rally
As the election clock ticks down, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling UMP party mobilized all their resources around a massive Sunday campaign rally in the northern Paris suburb of Villepinte.
Battling for a second term in office, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling UMP party staged their campaign’s biggest rally Sunday afternoon in the Villepinte expo centre north of Paris. The incumbent and his supporters are hoping the massive event will be a turning point in what has thus been viewed as an uninspiring presidential race.
Known as a fierce campaigner, Sarkozy has nevertheless been faltering in opinion polls and failed to impress election analysts since he officially launched his re-election bid on February 15. Scheduled to speak at 1:40pm Sunday, the incumbent has six weeks left to pull off a come-from-behind win or, by his own account, inter himself in his own political grave.
According to Jérome Sainte-Marie, director of opinion studies at the CSA polling agency, Sarkozy’s campaign has been weakened not only by a negative image he has developed while in office, but also by France’s economic woes. “The enduring reason he is struggling in polls is the perception he has failed to decrease unemployment, to boost economic growth,” Sainte-Marie said.
Writing in the left-leaning Liberation daily on March 10, French columnist Paul Quinio wrote that the Villepinte rally was nothing less than “a grand old Mass held to keep hope in a miracle alive.” Indeed, Sarkozy is hoping his afternoon sermon in Villepinte will bring about a much needed conversion among French voters.
Pulling out all the stops
The UMP has poured significant resources into the Villepinte rally. Under grey Sunday morning skies, thousands of supporters arrived in chartered coach buses and high-speed trains at a mammoth convention centre that resembled an international airport. According to reports in the French press, the meeting will cost Sarkozy’s campaign and the party 2 million euros, more than 10 percent of the entire budget for the first round of the election and twice as much as the Socialist challenger Francois Hollande’s campaign spent on its big meeting in Le Bourget, also north of Paris, on January 22.
The floor of the pricey 46,000-sq.-metre main hall where Sarkozy will be speaking has been lined with carefully arranged blue, white and red chairs, the colours of the French flag. According to Sarkozy’s campaign spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, organisers are expecting between 30 and 40 thousand supporters in Villepinte.
Notable Attendees and absentees
Party heavyweights like UMP chief François Copé, French Prime Minister François Fillon and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe are expected to flank Sarkozy on Sunday afternoon. Three presidential hopefuls, centrist Hervé Morin, Catholic conservative Christine Boutin and rural right-winger Frédéric Nihous–who all dropped out of the race to endorse Sarkozy, are also expected to attend.
The rally, which is being closely followed by the media, is also expected to attract some star power. Reports said French actor Gérard Depardieu and singers Enrico Macias and Didier Barbelivien –long-time friends of the president–would appear at the landmark campaign event.
However, notable absentees might threaten to somewhat spoil the mood. Former Sarkozy allies Jean-Louis Borloo and Rama Yade, who both quit the UMP party last year and have hesitated backing the president, said they would not attend the gathering. On Saturday Yade, a former secretary of state for sports who was a very vocal supporter of Sarkozy during his 2007 campaign, told the daily Le Monde she was not ready to endorse Sarkozy and criticized him for veering toward the far-right.
“In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy dictated the tempo, imposed the debate. Today we have the feeling, we Republicans, of having the [far-right’s] gun to our heads,” Yade told Le Monde. With the election clock ticking down, Sarkozy hopes his Villepinte speech will set a new pace for the presidential race. (photo credit: Steven Jambot)