Paris - To watch them perform, you would think Francois Hollande was already France's president and Nicolas Sarkozy was an insurgent frantically battling to dislodge him.
Conventional roles have been reversed in the final 10 days of a marathon election campaign in Europe's number two economy, a nuclear power and U.N. Security Council member - greatly to the benefit of Hollande, the Socialist challenger.
The conservative Sarkozy, a hyperactive player on the global and European stage for the last five years, is racing around the country frenetically, cajoling far-right voters and escalating a negative campaign against his Socialist opponent.
Hollande, 57, a rank outsider when he declared his candidacy more than a year ago, is acting the statesman, self-confidently holding international news conferences and setting out in calm, measured tones how he plans to change Europe's economic course once, rather than if, he wins a May 6 runoff.
Business leaders are schmoozing his potential ministers and aides; ambassadors are courting his policy advisers; his envoys are making discreet calls in Brussels and Berlin to prepare the ground with the senior staff of European leaders who refused to receive the Socialist as a candidate.
Hollande used the stagecraft of the presidency for his news conference on Wednesday, speaking in front of a sober blue backdrop with the French and European flags furled behind his right shoulder. Only the slogan “Now is the time for change” on the lectern signalled he was still a candidate for the job.
“French citizens do not want to see a president entering the political arena to solve daily problems, he needs to talk about values. Sarkozy has never got into this role,” said sociologist Jean-Francois Chantaraud, founder of the Odissee think-thank.
“Hollande, however, is talking about values and taking on the presidential mantle. He is talking about values and vision, justice and equality, but he does not get into the nitty-gritty of how he will solve problems,” he said.
Sarkozy is sticking to the playbook of his political guru Patrick Buisson, dividing the French at each rally into “real” workers and the “assisted”, “Parisian elites” versus “the people”, those proud of France's “Christian roots” and the rest.
As part of that strategy, the president cited on prime-time television a purported list of 700 mosques planning to endorse Hollande and said controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan was backing the Socialist. Muslim community leaders said there was no such list and Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, denied having taken sides in the French poll.
Sarkozy's lurch to the right, voiced in increasingly virulent rhetoric, is aimed at attracting the 6.4 million voters who cast ballots last Sunday for far-right anti-immigration campaigner Marine Le Pen, giving her a record 18 percent score.
Buisson, a former extreme-right newspaper editor, spelled out the strategy in a remarkably candid interview with the New York Times published last week, saying Sarkozy had to embody “the values of national identity.”
“This time, the central theme has been to be the candidate of borders, of the border that protects,” said Buisson.
Dangerously for Sarkozy, the few opinion polls taken since the first round have remained stable, with Hollande holding a 10-point lead over the incumbent, as if Sarkozy's radicalisation of the campaign was merely confirming voters in their choice.
Sarkozy has now managed to alienate centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, whose 9.1 percent of the first-round vote could be vital if Sarkozy is to have any hope of catching up with Hollande.
Bayrou distanced himself from the president in an open letter calling for both candidates to reject extremes and put an end to the “violence” of politics, a call that seemed chiefly targeted at the incumbent's confrontational style.
Courteous, humorous and a little long-winded, Hollande is plodding steadily towards the finishing line, like the tortoise in Aesop's fable, while Sarkozy dashes like the hare, zig-zagging rather than steering a steady course.
The Socialist has brushed off Sarkozy's challenge to three television debates between the rounds, noting that the president had accepted only one debate during his 2007 election campaign.
Hollande has tried to surmount his lack of ministerial experience by imitating - almost to the point of mimickry - the rhetoric and gestures of his mentor Francois Mitterrand, who governed France from 1981 to 1995.
Mitterrand aroused adulation when he led a united left to power in 1981 after 23 years in the political wilderness. His free-spending policies triggered a currency crisis and prompted a policy U-turn after two years.
He went on to outfox a conservative prime minister in a period of power-sharing and was re-elected in 1988, only to leave office reviled by many due to party sleaze scandals and revelations about his ambivalent role during World War Two.
Yet the 30th anniversary of Mitterrand's election last year gave rise to an outpouring of affection for the master tactician, who died in 1996.
Hollande has tapped into that nostalgia among voters who identified with Mitterrand's provincial roots, his deep culture and his ability to empathise with ordinary people. By contrast, Sarkozy appears to many, even in his own conservative camp, to be impetuous, vulgar and unpresidential in his demeanour.
As he approaches the finishing line in an increasingly frenzied campaign, this most divisive of presidents might contemplate the campaign slogan on which Mitterrand cruised to re-election in 1988: “United France.” - Reuters