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In French election, a cowboy and a swan

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2007


He's a kind of French cowboy with a Hungarian background. She's like an elegant swan whose last name is Royal. He's nature, a tough political operator par excellence. She's nurture, a mother of France unknown a year ago who catapulted into the apex of politics wearing white dresses.

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He's on the right, urging the country to face arduous changes of habit. She's on the left, arguing that it must renew its generous socialist traditions and sense of humanity.

So at the starting gate, it's a French election season made in French media heaven – Nicolas Sarkozy vs. Ségolène Royal.

If elected, Ms. Royal would be France's first female president, replacing Jacques Chirac, whose 12-year era is ending amid an extremely strong popular desire to change the elite-driven politics here.

Some call it a turning point to determine how France will reform the fabled but fraying and unaffordable "social model" that has for decades provided state support for every aspect of life.

For Europe, the French elections, which end in May after two rounds, are also seen as crucial. The outcome will begin to clarify the how – and extent of – Europe's political integration in common foreign policy and security, energy and the environment – including relations with the US.

"The discussion about 'Europe' is locked up until the French elections are finished," argues Pierre Haski, former editor of the daily Liberation newspaper who is starting a transatlantic foreign affairs web site.

Royal's 100-point pact this week

Royal of the Socialist party gave shape to the race this week, and stabilized a campaign that had started to slip, by issuing a 100-point "presidential pact" that guarantees job security, minimum income, and social benefits. It puts her firmly on the left. Her two-hour discourse in front of 15,000 without notes also indicates the race is not over France's position in the world, but nitty-gritty local French issues. Le Monde, a leading daily newspaper, describes this as a "social crisis" over jobs, health care, education, housing, and law and order.

Mr. Sarkozy, interior minister and candidate for the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), first elected mayor of a Paris suburb at the tender age of 28. He is running on a "republican pact." Despite heading a ministry which includes police, justice, and intelligence and the most publicly intrusive ministry in France, he advocates free-market individualism.

Sarkozy is seen as a formidable candidate. He's wooed many leftists. He's a fountain of pithy aphorisms like "work more, earn more," considered code for major change.

He also appeals to the French right with comments like, "Those who don't love France are free to leave." That's code for a harder line on law and order in restive, immigrant-crowded suburbs.

Focus on Sarko-Ségo, but 12 running

Despite media focus on the Sarko-Ségo race, as it is known, some dozen candidates are vying. The April 22 first round, for which candidates rally to gain support from the core of their parties, will reduce that to two. Then in the two weeks before the final vote, the candidates must deftly switch gears and appeal to a far broader range of voters.

François Bayrou of the center-right Union for French Democracy party has risen slightly as a dark horse. France votes roughly 60 percent on the right, and 40 percent on the left. Yet right parties are more divided with the nationalist Le Pen polling 10 to 15 percent.

Skepticism and distrust were high among more than a dozen everyday Parisians interviewed by the Monitor, most of whom are still undecided.

Indeed, mollifying rising frustrations among the French seems key to the election. There's palpable unease here, a sense that not only is the character of the country changing, but that the famed "good life" is uncertain. A huge segment of voters depend on overloaded or rigidly state-controlled jobs or services. Affordable housing seems distant as real estate costs and rents rise. Schools are crowded; gaps are widening between degrees earned and jobs secured. Social security is debt-ridden.

"There's a feeling that France is on the edge of something, its position is not good, and the future isn't clear," says a political advisor to a top French minister. "Many people think, 'France doesn't look like what I knew from the past,' and think, 'I don't know what it will be for my children.' "

To be sure, the election does relate to French pride and France's position in the world. Recent presidents such as François Mitterand and Mr. Chirac have cut a wake on the world stage. The current dozen candidates have not gained such gravitas in the French mind, and have yet to live up to the French expectation that "they have the shoulders for the job."