French set to usher in new era, but which one?

They head to polls Sunday in the first round of a historic presidential election.

In the last days before Round 1 of a historic French presidential election, conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy paid his respects at the tomb of Charles de Gaulle. Ségolène Royal got out the working class vote by sympathizing with female cashiers at a Paris supermarket. And "third man" François Bayrou held a rally in a Paris stadium that holds 15,000 – and 17,000 showed up.

French voters in 2007 passionately want a change of course, but aren't sure which path to take or if any of the candidates can wrest France from its old social-welfare habits.

"My friends and I want a charismatic leader," says Benoit, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer strolling on the Left Bank. He may vote Sarkozy. "We want change, but we aren't sure how much. We talk about it all the time."

The 44.5 million voters in this proud but worried nation know the piper is calling, and that the elections are a watershed after decades of delayed reform: Shop-worn economic policies and new ethnic unrest put France at a crossroads. The road taken will shape a generation, as well as the future of Europe, experts say.

For nearly 40 years, France has lived with the same basic social model, one designed to deliver a generous "good life." As that model began to fray and overload in the 1980s, France's political elite delayed and delayed its reform.

The socialist economic model has brought heavy debt and doubts about French competitiveness. Large pockets of migrants in satellite suburbs around major cities are not well integrated – an issue that isn't going away. And its leadership position in Europe is in question.

"The era of [François] Mitterand's socialism is over," says an adviser in the French ruling cabinet, speaking of France's president in the 1980s. "Politicians on both the right and the left want something new. But they don't know what that is. Everyone's looking. But one thing this election has brought is a wake-up call. Politics is no longer dead in France."

Twelve candidates are running. That will likely narrow to two after Sunday, leading to a May 6 run off. For many French, the nominees are untested as leaders with gravitas – the Pepsi generation of France is about to choose a replacement for the grandfatherly Jacques Chirac. This is the first election since 1969 that Mr. Chirac isn't on the ballot.

"The candidates are all in their 50s, bring a new style of politics ... but we don't know what they will do," argues Arun Kapil, a political science professor at the American University in Paris. "No major issue has dominated the campaign and foreign policy and Europe have been absent. Neither Mr. Sarkozy nor [Socialist Ségolène] Ms. Royal speaks fluent English; if either is elected president, that would be a first for modern France."

Sarkozy: Tough-talking & energetic

Only three candidates appear able to win both rounds. Sarkozy is the boldest. A former interior minister, Sarkozy is going to "put France back to work," is promising root-and-branch economic change, and law and order in the suburbs. His energetic style convinces many French he is strong and clever enough to do so. He is deeply hated on the left and among minorities as an illiberal opportunist who will exacerbate social tensions. Polls show him 4-5 points ahead of Royal.

Royal: 'Tony Blair of France'

Ms. Royal promises change, but inside the old model. Put simply, she's going to do better with what France already has. Hints that she will be a modernizer, a "Tony Blair of France," scare the hard left in her party. Royal would be France's first woman president. Pundits say she must score well among working-class voters to win in Round I. Critics call her inexperienced and incapable of busting France out of its encrusted welfare state. But many French see her as a force for social harmony.

Bayrou: Aims to unite French divide

Then there is François Bayrou. This spring, as Royal and Sarkozy defined a stark choice between a more efficient socialism and free-market liberation, the professorial former sheep farmer presented himself as the great alchemist, able to unify France. Mr. Bayrou would mix the best policies of right and left, and bridge France's mammoth political divide. Sarkozy may fear him the most.

Yet whether Bayrou, whose Union for French Democracy party is small, can unify France's left and right or reform its thick administration, is in doubt. Former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Vedrine told reporters it is "too difficult" for a small party politician to manage.

In Parisian cafes, intense debates are under way about whether to vote for Bayrou or Royal to face Sarkozy on May 6. Uncertainty over France's political choice creates its own drama. Royal's bid to create a new "participatory politics" has foundered somewhat. Sarkozy's negatives may run as high as his positives; a cover piece in the liberal weekly magazine Marianne describing him as rage-prone and autocratic sold 300,000 copies this week; a 60,000 reprint sold out and a second reprint is under way.

"The election started as a question about who is best capable of personifying the change of era that France is in," says Pierre Haski, cofounder of "Rue 89," a news website going online May 6. "Everyone was condemning the old, unresponsive politics.... Bayrou captured that mood, but then failed to convince. So the first round is ending with a mood of disenchantment and a fear that there won't be a real break with the past."

In the end, the elections may be decided by a silent majority of ordinary conservative French outside Paris who will opt for a tough character unafraid to knock heads and engineer change. In 2002, the runoff was between conservative Chirac and ultraconservative Jean-Marie Le Pen. Few experts see Mr. Le Pen, the fourth man in the race, repeating. But the sentiment may prevail.

No hanging chads in France

France has 44.5 million voters, with 535,000 of them overseas. At polling stations near their residence, voters are presented with standardized opaque envelopes. They then choose bulletins de vote – slips of paper with one of the 12 candidates' names printed. One may choose all 12 or just one bulletin. For privacy, many take several.

In a curtained booth, voters put their candidate's slip in the envelope and fold the flap: No writing, no punching, no hanging chads.

As they exit, an election official reexamines voter IDs. Voters then sign a huge registry and line up at a transparent voting box. An official speaks the voter's name, then slides open a slot on the box. The voter drops the envelope. The official says, "A voté." ("Has voted.") Et voilà!

Results are expected around 10 p.m. Sunday (5 p.m. EST).

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