France's Election 2012: Secret Dealings Afoot?

François Hollande, the French socialist contender, shaking hands with incumbent conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy: it happened last Wednesday in Paris in front of about a thousand eyewitnesses and national TV cameras.

Quite an event, in the highly volatile context of the French presidential campaign. The first ballot is scheduled to take place in ten weeks on April 22, and the second two weeks later on May 6. According to the latest BVA poll, Hollande is currently the frontrunner, with 30% on the first ballot against 26% for Sarkozy. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, is a solid third at 17.5%. Two more candidates are worth mention: François Bayrou, a centrist outsider, has 13%; and far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon has 8%.

Sarkozy and Hollande met at Pavillon d’Armenonville -- a posh restaurant in the middle of Bois de Boulogne -- for the annual dinner of CRIF, the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations. Sarkozy was the honored guest, as he has been three times since his election in 2007. Hollande, who was duly invited as another mainstream political VIP, agreed to attend as well -- a move that was not entirely anticipated.

Everybody remembered the 2007 CRIF dinner, held a few weeks ahead of the election. Both Sarkozy -- then the minister of Interior and the conservative candidate -- and socialist candidate Ségolène Royal appeared at the cocktail hour preceding the dinner, but Mrs. Royal was adamant about not being seen anywhere near Sarkozy. Hollande deliberately reversed that approach: he sat throughout the dinner at the secondary table he had been assigned to and listened carefully, with a measure of respect, to the president’s speech. Hollande stayed until dessert in the custody and companionship of Meyer Habib, CRIF’s vice president and a close friend of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The only time Hollande rose from his seat was to greet Sarkozy.

Why did Hollande behave as such? A first answer has to do with the complexities of French gender relations: he happens to be Royal’s ex-common law husband. They lived together from 1970 to 2006 and have four children. He may have felt a need to contradict her behavior.

But there is a second answer: as a political leader, Hollande plays on inclusiveness, not on polarization, and it has worked so far: he won the socialist primaries last fall and has enjoyed sound popularity rates ever since then.

A few days before CRIF’s dinner, he delivered his first real public speech as a socialist candidate in Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris. The only enemy he mentioned was "Big Money": something that in France sounds like cannibalism does in the United States; is attacked by Left and Right alike; and means nothing in practical terms. He didn’t claim to be the champion of the French socialists, nor of the French Left. And he never uttered Sarkozy’s name.

Perhaps, there exists even another motivation. The French are not entirely politically stupid: they know there is a world crisis, and they understand that neither the Right alone (as it is now) nor the Left can deal with it. They wish there was some kind of national unity, if only for a while, in order to address many of their many problems in a united way.

François d’Orcival, the journalist and historian, was another guest at CRIF’s dinner. He confided to me:

The French are longing for a national unity government. But the conservative and socialist platforms cannot be reconciled.

Both Sarkozy and Hollande know this. Both are eager to be seen as supporters of national unity, even if they don’t do much, for the time being.