My readers tell me not to panic. The cantonals are coming, we'll see how strong the FN really is. The PS shouldn't change its timetable. Such a move would just signal disarray. A 14-month campaign is too long. People won't pay attention. All these are reasonable points, but consider a few points in rebuttal.
First, the presidential contest is not like other elections. It is the choice of an individual, not a party. That individual has to establish a firm identity in the minds of voters. Television and other modern media have changed the way in which the link between voter and leader is established. The final push of the campaign is only a small part of the courtship. A would-be president needs to become part of the landscape, to appear frequently, to comment on the fleeting issues of the moment.
One politician who understands this is Copé: look at how ubiquitous he has made himself, already running for 2017. One sees him more often than Fillon. He is establishing his "brand." It won't appeal to all (it certainly doesn't appeal to me), but it will serve him when he does run. In my view, no PS candidate has such presence, except Royal, and her "brand" is now negatively noted, I believe, in a majority of minds. That is why I think the PS needs to choose a candidate soon and start its campaign early.
Of course it needs to do more than that: it has to find a candidate who has a knack for insinuating him- or herself into the national conversation on a daily basis, and it has to equip that candidate with the right mix of issues and messages to establish a distinctive position. This is an art. One can be competent in economic management, as DSK is, and yet incompetent in communicating with the public, even on the issues in which one is well-versed. I think DSK needs practice on this score. Hollande is, in this respect at least, more skilled. Aubry, in my opinion, is not.
Second, I don't think it's a signal of panic to respond to a restive electorate. I think one of the things that frustrates the less politically sophisticated citizenry is the sense that elites are isolated from their everyday concerns. There are, to my mind, two substantial voting blocs that will decide this election. One lies in the center of the political spectrum. It includes greens, third-way socialists, social liberals, "good government" advocates of accountability, fiscal transparency, etc. (think of those who gravitate toward Bayrou and Arthuis, MoDem and Center Alliance), etc. These people aren't voting for Le Pen, they're thoroughly disgusted with Sarkozy, and they're looking for a place to settle. They will vote for a candidate of their own in the first round unless they're presented with a compelling reason to voter utile.
The second floating bloc is drawn from les classes populaires, comme on dit. It consists of people who no longer know what makes them angriest. One day it may be the bosses, another day the Eurocrats, still another the connivance between fat cats and politicians of various stripes, or the serving of halal food at the local Quick, or prayer in the streets, or a candidate with a veil. One way to attract the votes of this group is to feed its anger, to reinforce its sense of victimization. There is no shortage of aspirants to this role, and their success varies over time, as the salience of the various sources of anger waxes and wanes.
But angry people may not simply want to have their anger fed. Even more deeply they may want to be calmed, to be taken seriously, to be told that their complaints have been heard and will be addressed in specific ways. This was what Mitterrand was able to do in 1981. The substantial support that de Gaulle had enjoyed among the popular classes had been eroded by changes in the global economy that had led to the demise of much heavy industry in France. Mitterrand knew how to address the disaffected without condescension. In 1995, Chirac's talk of social fracture courted the disaffected of Mitterrandism. Sarkozy was able to retain this group in 2007 by emphasizing themes of security and labor and affecting a populist style. But his support here is fraying by the day. The challenge for the opposition is to appeal to this bloc without alienating the centrists.