The French just broke the world high-speed train record, spring weather rests on Paris like paradise, and a dozen prospective presidents are buzzing on the airwaves, promising change for the better.
Yet to hear French on the street tell it, voting in Sunday's national elections is a necessary evil, like dental work or eating your oatmeal – something you don't want to do but feel you must.
In Paris, everyone agrees the elections are a crucial crossroads for France, a choice between very different left and right visions of the future. But frustration with politics and concern about the French position in the world runs deep on the sidewalks. In this election, many French have resigned themselves to the idea that the election may swing not on whom they would like vote for, but on whom they feel they have to vote for; so they are busy strategizing.
"I would normally vote Green [party]," says Michel, who runs a small business in Paris. "But I'm so anti-right, that I will vote for whomever can make it to the second round. I'll have to vote for Ségolène [Royal]," the Socialist candidate.
Indeed, in the curious method of French voting, which involves two rounds – April 22, and a May 6 run-off – many are opting for a vote utile, or practical vote. You may love the ecology candidate or an anti-immigration right-winger. But at the end of the day, you feel you can't vote for them. Why? Because of the outcome of the last election.
In 2002, so many French lodged protest votes against the main candidates – so called "elephants" like Socialist Lionel Jospin – that hard-right ideologue Jean-Marie Le Pen finished second. That brought a runoff between conservative Gaullist Jacques Chirac, and far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen – a choice that deeply galled many French, especially traditional moderates and leftists.
This year, the vote utile seems mainly to favor Ms. Royal, conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy, or Mr. In-Between, François Bayrou – a third choice who wants to unite the left and right. But many voters are pessimistic that even a strategic vote utile could accomplish that unity.
"We have a divide between left and right and nothing's going to change that," says a grizzled house painter at Montmartre. "Not my vote, nothing."
The vote utile is being used mainly as a way to block disliked candidates.
"For me to vote for Royal, a fake leftist, means I am really scared," says Jeremy, a musician. "It means I don't have a choice. There is no way France can elect Nicolas Sarkozy, a fascist, who says criminals are criminals at birth, and says immigrants are scum. What is that?" (Last week Sarkozy was quoted as saying that pedophiles are born genetically predisposed to their acts. In 2005 he called ethnic rioters racaille – "scum" or "riffraff.")
Yet not only leftists feel the pull of vote utile. A battle is shaping up on the right, which contains the largest segment of French voters. Le Pen this week called Mr. Sarkozy the racaille of French politics, and has accused him of stealing his ideas.
"The vote utile is a fact on both the right and left in this election," notes Jean-Luc Parodi of Sciences Po in Paris. "Le Pen wants the second round, but a quarter to a fourth of those who voted for him in 2002 now want Sarkozy. The 2002 election changed French thinking. The left felt Jospin was so qualified, that no one bothered to vote for him. This won't happen again."
Yet surveys supposedly conducted by the interior ministry – until recently headed by Sarkozy, – show Sarkozy and Le Pen in round two, with Le Pen edging out Bayrou and Royal.
Mr. Bayrou, a former sheep farmer turned politician predicted this week while campaigning in western France that "next Sunday I will be the vote utile." But Françoise Hollande, Ms. Royal's companion, father of her children, and head of the Socialist party, said last week that "the vote utile has to be made for France," a clear call to the left to rally behind the lady.
The vote utile moment raises cries from smaller hopefuls. "On April 22, vote for your ideas, don't vote against yourself. Vote for you," says Green Party candidate Dominique Voynet.
No one will accuse the French of lacking in contradiction, experts say. They are hungry for change, just not too much. They worry about new immigrants from North Africa, but feel cosmopolitan. They expect France to revitalize its industry, but aren't eager to give up a 35-hour work week. They hope to lead a unified Europe, but said "no" to a referendum on Europe two years ago. They want the good life, but not at great cost.
And in this election season in particular, when "undecided" has been the main utterance by the vox populi – the latest polls put the figure at nearly 50 percent – may bring a surprise come Sunday. Margins of error are growing wider in polls and surveys.
Paris is not France, experts point out. In Paris, those who don't want to talk about their vote are thought to back conservatives. Outside Paris, if you don't want to say, it may mean you will vote on the left.
"We don't want to tell you about money or who we are voting for. It is very French," says Romain, who works at a museum.