Two months ago, Paris’s political insiders were unanimous: the presidential race was still open, but Segolene Royal was clearly the favorite. Today, the reverse seems true. While the race is not over, and recent polls have shown that Royal’s numbers have bounced back, Nicolas Sarkozy has emerged as the consistent favorite in the polls, as well as of those who declared “him nearly defeated in early December. The new consensus can be described as follows: Segolene Royal cannot defeat Nicolas Sarkozy, but Sarkozy can defeat himself. Why has the Socialist candidate, the first woman who had a serious chance to be elected President of France, fallen from grace so quickly? And why has Sarkozy proved to be so resilient, despite the often negative passions aroused by his personality? If Segolene Royal is defeated, it will not be because she is a woman, but in spite of it. The French are ready for a woman, but perhaps not this one. She is beautiful, energetic, resolute, and in many ways surprising. Indeed, on issues such as law and order, respect for authority, and nationalism, one finds her positions far from what one would expect of a Socialist candidate. But Royal has so far failed to rally her camp behind her. Her campaign’s combination of authoritarianism and confusion, if not sheer incompetence, is sapping her supporters’ morale while confirming the deep reservations of her opponents. Whatever their political preferences, many French voters have the feeling that an “amateur is facing a “professional. Whereas Sarkozy has managed to impose himself on the right without the support of President Jacques Chirac, for a long time, namely until last week, the Socialist heavyweights could not fully convince themselves to come out behind Royal. Her defeat would be theirs, too, but their resentment over losing the nomination to her proved stronger than their political survival instincts. Royal’s emphasis on the concept of participatory democracy – “Tell me what you want, I will be your spokesperson – has so far shown itself to have limited appeal. Voters like to be consulted, and citizens love to express themselves, but at the end of the day, they want a leader, someone they can trust. In other terms, they don’t want only a receptive ear, but a reassuring, authoritative, and competent figure. Two months before the vote, the presidential campaign has demonstrated that the modernization, if not “Americanization, of French politics (for example, the heavy use of the internet) has taken hold. But the campaign is also proving the resilience of “classical politics. Royal may have presented herself as a “postmodern politician, but it is a “classical politician who seems to be winning. At the same time, Sarkozy has been able to emerge as the natural leader of the right partly because Chirac has been less of a liability than many people, including the experts, predicted. Indeed, the reverse seems to be true, which perhaps reflects the tendency of French voters to adopt a positive view of departing presidents. Chirac himself has orchestrated his departure with a grace, presenting himself in the best possible light with personal confidences and public speeches. It is as if France were now seized by a kind of nostalgic generosity toward a presidency that had been marked by suspicion and derision. Chirac is not about to present himself as a candidate to divide the conservative camp, and the new leniency surrounding his record may actually benefit Sarkozy, his impatient and rebellious heir. Yet opposition to Sarkozy remains high, and not only among minorities and young people, who have registered to vote in high numbers, supposedly to oppose him and his heavy use of the police in the suburbs. “Bonaparte may be about to triumph easily over “Joan of Arc, as some foreign commentators like to describe the two leading candidates, but Sarkozy’s supposedly “Bonapartist qualities have fueled a potent sense of apprehension. In fact, the persistence of strong reservations about both Royal and Sarkozy helps explain the surge in popularity for a third candidate, Francois Bayrou, a traditional centrist, pro-European politician. Bayrou has never had it so good. However, barring the unlikely collapse of one of the two leading candidates’ campaigns, he will fail to qualify for the second-round runoff. In our media-dominated age, personalities ultimately matter more than programs, which means that elimination prevails over selection. That process seems to favor Sarkozy. An anybody-but-Sarkozy reflex may exist in some circles of French society, but, in order to prevail, a credible alternative is required. So far, Royal has failed to play that role. Dominique Moisi, a founder and senior advisor at the French Institute of International Relations, is currently a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).