There is no obvious reason for Obama to root for socialist candidate François Hollande in the next French presidential election, where the first round will take place April 22. Indeed, Obama even authorized part of his latest videoconference with Nicolas Sarkozy to be shown on French TV, with the U.S. president saying “I admire the tough battle you’re waging.” Since he was elected in 2007, Sarkozy has been a good ally, loudly proclaiming his proximity to the United States, bringing France back into the integrated military command of NATO, maintaining a hard line on Iran, competently driving the G20 process and leading from the front in Libya.
Admittedly, there also have been irritants. Sarkozy thought Obama’s steps to move towards full nuclear disarmament were naive. Last year, he supported Palestinian aspirations at the UN General Assembly and at UNESCO, with no coordination with Washington. In January, he abruptly announced that French soldiers would leave Afghanistan in 2013 rather than on the agreed 2014 date. And he dragged his feet on Obama’s revamped missile-defense scheme. But if Sarkozy is not the reflexive Atlanticist in the mold of Tony Blair some are making him out to be and is seen by the White House as unpredictable and impetuous, at least he is a known quantity. So why should Obama prefer the devil he doesn’t know?
For starters, he may have no choice. Sarkozy is a dogged campaigner, and he staged an impressive comeback in the polls during the month of March (before the Toulouse terrorist attacks, not as a result of them). But he has been trailing François Hollande from the start, not so much for the first round of the election as for the run-off, by 8 percentage points and sometimes more. Sarkozy may still make it on May 6, but it is a big challenge to be reelected in the context of the euro crisis and rising unemployment, as other EU leaders will attest. So when one adds the appetite of the energized Left—which lost the last three presidential elections since 1995 but won almost all other polls since 2007—and the enduring mistrust between “Sarko” and public opinion, this really looks like an election for François Hollande to lose.