PARIS - Here they are, face to face, these two men who have fought each other for months. Same generation, same passion for politics. They have known each other for years, each on his side of the invisible fence that separates France's two main political parties. When they were members of Parliament, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande used to address each other with the familiar 'tu' of the French language. But now, only one will win Sunday's election for the French presidency.
For the traditional lone televised debate, a decisive moment of the presidential election, they had to remind the other one what they knew of each other: the blunders, the policy contradictions, even the alleged fibs and falsehoods. But in a presidential election, personality matters too: the ways of reacting that are forged in childhood, the lessons in life drawn from past failures and success.
Hollande does not underestimate Nicolas Sarkozy: He is a bad president but a good candidate, he concedes. For his part, Sarkozy overlooked the Socialist candidate for a long time. But because they share the same political instinct, they also had the same opinion of a potential rival for each: Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The now former head of the International Monetary Fund had too many love affairs, manners that were too casual -- a kind of indifference that is not permissible to reach the presidency.
But apart from this, what do they have in common? A realism that only belongs to major party leaders, a shared political obstinacy, and a commitment to Europe that had sometimes dragged them down. Once, they even exposed their seeming complicity to promote the European Constitution, on the front page of Paris Match. This picture of the two candidates has now become a secret irritation for both.
Lets look at them for a moment, to try to understand them. François Hollande, 57, is a provincial, even in his culinary tastes and in the pleasure he gets from the small talk of cafés. His father was an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, his mother a social worker. He has one brother. He had a standard childhood in the Catholic bourgeoisie of the northwestern city of Rouen. And even though the family moved to the upscale Paris suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine when he was a teenager, the provincial image never really left him. And because of this, he was long considered a political outsider.
His rival has a Hungarian name, legacy of a family history that went hand-in-hand with the troubled history of post-war Europe. Pal Nagy Bocsa y Sarközy, Nicolas father, was the heir of a Budapest aristocratic family. He arrived in France in 1948, fleeing from occupying Soviet forces who forced young people to join the army. Nicolas Sarkozy does not know a single word of the language of his father, who did not want to teach him. It wouldnt have been very useful anyway; Hungary is a small country, Pal told Le Monde a few years ago. And I wanted my children to be entirely French anyway.
But according to the French president, its above all a sign of his fathers negligence. His childhood in a hotel particulier of the 17th district of Paris was more than comfortable. But he held a wound from his parents divorce, which happened when he was only five. What shaped me are my childhood humiliations, he let slip out in an interview years ago. I dont have any nostalgia from my childhood because it was not a particularly good moment of my life.
Along the political spectrum, Hollande is a real Social Democrat, and a convinced backer of a united Europe. When he was younger, the only person who dared to confront him, while he was a start student at the elite ENA school for public administration, was Ségolène Royal, who would eventually rise through the Socialist party to be the candidate in 2007 (losing to Sarkozy in the runoff). Back in their university days, Royal seduced Hollande with her intelligence and sense of humor.
Over 25 years, they became a star couple, precisely because it is so rare in the political arena. François and Ségolène: she has twice been a minister; he was the head of the party. They had four children, though never married. Their story ended in 2007, because of what we can call both sentimental treason and political rivalry. She was a presidential candidate before him. He now lives with political journalist, Valérie Trierweiler.
Hollande is considered a practical and balanced man. But he has been through a professional winter that began in 2008: four years of solitude and contempt. He was called wimpy, a paddle-boat captain, and was praised more for his one liners than his poitical skills. But all of this is behind him now, and leads the polls heading into Sunday's vote.
As for Nicolas Sarkozy, also 57, he adopted every right-wing trend that came along. For years, as the mayor of Neuilly, the same town where Hollande's family moved, he organized urbane dinners in the city hall. He invited CEOs, actors, lawyers, TV presenters.
While he was conducting the marriage of one of his citizens, Jacques Martin, one of the most popular French TV presenters, he fell in love with the bride, Cécilia. For 15 years, he did not make a move towards her. They finally married in 1996. The political world is so violent that its better that there are two to face it, said Cécilia Sarkozy.
But while her husband was facing Ségolène Royal during the 2007 presidential election, she left him. The day he was elected, she didn't go to vote, and his victory will always miss that single ballot. Since then, he has remarried former model Carla Bruni, who was initially from the left. Sarkozy is now both a father of an infant girl, and a grandfather.
The same things have been said about him during his whole life: tough, determined, resourceful, aggressive, extreme and brutal. His presidential record is full of contradictions and breakdowns. Even his supporters are ambivalent.
In this election during which they oppose each other, one became the favorite. The other one fights with his back to the wall.
Read the original article in French
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