After first-round elections, a clear choice for France

With a near-record 84 percent turnout, French voters send two presidential candidates with vividly contrasting visions – and characters – to the May 6 runoff.

On May 6 France faces its first real presidential choice in 12 years: Nicolas Sarkozy wants to shake the French system to its core by establishing an entrepreneurial spirit and better ties with the US. Ségolène Royal, France's first serious female contender, wants to reshape a generation of socialist policies without creating strife among a diversifying French population.

A massive Round 1 turnout Sunday for the most anticipated political event in Europe this year is a clear mandate for "change" in France, though what kind of change is unclear.

Ms. Royal was immediately endorsed by three left-wing candidates. But whether she or Mr. Sarkozy will most benefit in the second round from supporters of "third man" François Bayrou's is unknown. Mr. Bayrou, whose politics of unity attracted a strong showing of 6.5 million swing voters, holds a press conference Wednesday.

The May 6 runoff will showcase two sharply contrasting visions – and characters. Images from the final days say much: Sarkozy astride a horse at a bull ranch, and a white-clad Royal in working-class suburbs – a combination of Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa.

Sarkozy's 31.1 percent score on Sunday is higher than his own camp predicted, and a daunting hurdle for Royal – though she defied predictions of an early demise, with a healthy 25.8 percent.

"It confirms [Sarkozy's] strategy to be the first viable candidate in France to openly declare he is a man of the right," says Arun Kapil of American University in Paris. "In France, 'right' is a sulfurous word. Democrats in the US don't want to be called 'left'; in France no one in the Gaullist camp, not even Jacques Chirac, has said he is à droite [on the right]."

In an election considered a crossroads for a nation unable to reform its welfare state, Round 1 may have created a new voting class – centrists. Bayrou's 18 percent is significant for an electorate traditionally split between left and right.

"For so many people to ... want a mixture of both left and right, has created a new center position," says Christopher Mesnooh, a Parisian lawyer. "I think that's the real story out of Sunday. No one has recently been able to pull that off before, and Bayrou thus may have a significant role to play."

Sunday's 84.6 percent turnout is only a fraction smaller than the record 84.7 percent registered in 1965, France's first popular election, which pitted the venerable Charles De Gaulle against François Mitterand.

Sunday's vote narrowed the field from 12 candidates to two. It also marginalizes small parties. The newspaper Le Monde said the elections signify a "weakening of the extremes" in French politics. The era of ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, which dates to 1956, is probably over in France after he managed only 10.4 percent Sunday. "Sarkozy ... brought Le Pen down to a level where he ceases to matter," intoned Le Monde.

The vibrant left in France suffered similar losses. Six parties – including the communists, greens, and Trotskyites – scored only 10.5 percent.

Not since 1995 has France been offered a real choice. A 2002 runoff between conservative Jacques Chirac and the far-right Le Pen left many voters, who were not going to elect a far-right head of state, bitter at having to vote for Mr. Chirac to make sure of it.

Since 2002, Chirac has done little to alter the basic underlying French social-welfare model, even as a complex of frustrations and fears have grown about French identity and competitiveness. Attempts at even small-scale changes, like more easily hiring and firing new employees, brought demonstrations. In a France with a revolutionary past, disputes are usually first settled on the street and then by negotiation.

How Sarkozy and Royal would face opponents of the current generous welfare model willing to strike or riot – or inspire voters concerned that the good life and French global leadership may not be sustainable without reform – is unclear. A close election May 6 may not bring a ringing mandate.

But Sunday's huge turnout and the "awakening of democracy" as Le Monde terms it, may enable both "Sarko and Sego" to use the old saying that "for things to stay the same, things are going to have to change."

Both candidates have opened with what pundits describe as bold statements. Royal, often described as pressured if not bullied by the far left of her own party, told supporters this is not the case. "I am a free woman.... I am not a hostage of any group," she said to cheering crowds Sunday night.

She staked out a position as a nurturer of France focused on change. "It is not only responsible but urgent to leave behind a system that is not working," she said. But change must come "without brutalizing [France]," she said, an oblique reference to what is likely to become a main issue – Sarkozy's image as a tough guy.

Royal said she will "refuse to cultivate fear" – except, said one commentator, "perhaps a fear of Sarkozy as president."

Sarkozy sought on Sunday to take his persona out of the equation, by asking for a clean campaign, saying that a race between himself and Royal would offer "two ideas for the future, two projects for society ... and we have the responsibility to make the positions as clear as possible."

A debate between Sarkozy and Royal is slated for May 2.

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