Woman candidate offers a French twist

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Revolution has again broken out in France. For the first time, a woman has a realistic chance of becoming that country's head of state. Her name is Ségolène Royal, and she just trounced her Socialist competitors in last week's primary. She ran as an agent of change, but how much change would she deliver?

What happens in France concerns not just those who live there. France ranks as the world's sixth-largest economy. It holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It has driven European integration – although the French public is no longer so keen on the idea. Depending on one's point of view, France acts either as an international irritant or a necessary brake, but there's no question of its pivotal role in world affairs.

At home, the French are thirsting for political modernity, which is why opinion polls show Ms. Royal, a regional politician, in a dead heat with the likely center-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, the country's interior minister. Both represent a new political generation, and both promise a "rupture" from the past, come presidential elections next year.

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The French are weary of the nearly 12-year rule of President Jacques Chirac (a member of Mr. Sarkozy's party). French economic growth lags behind other wealthy nations. Chronic unemployment has settled at 8 to 10 percent (more than 20 percent among youth).

Last year's riots in France's immigrant and Muslim neighborhoods exposed a social and economic tension that hasn't gone away. Voters view politics as the realm of an aging, out-of-touch elite ("the elephants," as Royal calls them).

But the key issue remains French willingness to swallow the difficult reforms necessary to work their way out of these problems. The French want a changing of the guard. But are they willing to rebuild their castle?

Like much of the rest of Europe, France creaks under the weight of its expensive social welfare system and restrictive labor market. What it needs is vigorous, Maggie Thatcher-style reform, which freed Britain's labor market and paved the way for the longest economic expansion in recent British history.

But "Sego," as the upbeat and stylish Royal is nicknamed, is no Maggie. True, she's gone out on a limb by speaking positively about the British way – perceived as heartless by many French. She also criticized the 35-hour work week – a Socialist sacred cow. But she has eased off on that point, and last week she unrealistically painted France as able to win globally while still keeping its generous welfare system.

Royal's likely opponent, Sarkozy, appears to be more serious about overhauling the "social model," but he, too, has softened his position. He also wants to improve relations with the US, but that seems more a matter of tone (Royal's foreign policy positions have yet to be clearly stated).

So far, the change represented by Royal seems more style than substance. A mother of four, who experienced a difficult childhood, she offers a genuine break from a patriarchal, elite political system. That, in itself, is an important cultural step for France. But at some point, she – or Sarkozy – will have to serve up substantial, difficult reform. The French can't subsist on cake forever.

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