PARIS — 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.
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 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.
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."
"We need to imagine a candidate that can go to the US and talk to the president," says Demi Chaldo, an assistant in a Paris law firm, "We want someone with scope, who knows the job, but is not an elite. So it is paradoxical for French people."
Royal has captured the imagination of the overseas media here. As John Kirby Abraham, a 40-year resident and former British reporter argues, "Can you imagine the Republic of France with a woman leader? I think it could be a bigger revolution than 1789!"
Yet many French, despite loving Royal's glamour, are also often shrugging their shoulders over an American infatuation with Royal, which they view as misunderstanding the way French politics works.
"Sarkozy wants to take the country out of its sloppiness," says Guillaume Parmentier of the Center for America and Transatlantic Relations. "The election will be over whether people want painful change, Sarkozy, or the appearance of change, with a woman, Royal."
Royal herself, a lifelong socialist who worked for Mr. Mitterand in the 1980s, has been undergoing intense scrutiny. Prior to Feb. 11, her campaign was entering dangerous waters.
At the New Year she was the front-runner. But ironically, on trips to the Middle East, China, and Canada designed to give her some international heft, she made a series of gaffes. Perhaps the most serious in the French mind came in China, where the daughter of a nation that champions the rights of man praised the Chinese justice system for its speed and efficiency.
Her push to be a Tony Blair-style reformer inside the Socialist party, and to move the party toward the center, was attacked by the intellectual left. Sources who know Royal say that by taking over the Socialist party with her domestic partner François Hollande, by introducing reforms, and by creating an innovative Internet registration rule last fall that gave her the nomination – she is a proven political heavyweight.
Yet by Feb. 1, Sarkozy was leading in the polls. Royal's Feb. 11 statement may have stabilized her. Sources say that Royal has shifted to the harder left, partly to isolate and dramatize Sarkozy as a rightist.
Sarkozy, for his part, has racked up a series of incidents that have raised eyebrows, though not yet hurt him in the polls. He used French intelligence to investigate Royal's adviser Bruno Rebelle, for example. As head of the police he ordered top detectives last month to recover his son's stolen motor scooter and perform DNA tests to capture the thief.
"One of these two candidates is going to have to inspire enough people to hope," says an American diplomat, "or the anger, frustration, and disappointment will lead to a protest vote for a politician like Le Pen. It is difficult to realize from the outside how fed up the French are."
'What [Ségolène] says about pensions, about helping the elderly and handicapped people, is interesting. But can she do what she says?
'I don't want Sarkozy because his social program is poor. There are towers in Nanterre [a Paris suburb] for lower-income people. Did you see towers in Neuilly, where Sarkozy was the mayor? No.... I am not satisfied by the current situation, and ... I think the Socialists could change things.' – Paule, retired nurse
'We need a man who will bring some discipline and who can run things by cutting through our bureaucracy. I'm for Le Pen. I'll never vote for Ségolène.' – Stéphan, real estate agent
'I was really disappointed by Ségolène's [Feb. 11] speech. Her program is not truly leftist.
'So far, the campaign has been pathetic. There is no debate about the real social issues. The average French guy can't really know the candidates.
'I don't know who I am going to vote for. Maybe José Bové or [Communist Revolutionary League] Olivier Besancenot, at least they have some serious ideas.' – Jean-Denis Laffont, young social worker
'The Socialist Party is abandoning its traditional voters. They are now looking for Sarkozy and Le Pen's voters.' – Tristan, music school clerk
'Sarkozy is the only one who really knows what he is doing. He has experience and he's smart.' – François, graduate student in management
'The campaign is not really persuasive. We only hear about Sarkozy and Ségolène ... The whole campaign is based on money, on monetary benefits for us. But how will they finance everything?' – Béatrice Roulon, mother of three
'I may vote for [centrist candidate François] Bayrou, as an alternative.' – Pierre Ruiz, head accountant at large firm
'I have had French citizenship for two years now so it is the first time I am going to vote. So far, I don't know who I am going to vote for.
'Sarkozy has a solution for everything it seems like. But Ségolène has good proposals as well, so why not?' – Julien, hotel receptionist of Kurdish origin