A French election about tolerance

The candidates are merely tolerated, but the contest's bigger issue: How much change can France tolerate?

The signs and billboards of this gracious city give an interesting glimpse into its live-and-let-live culture.

Each morning, on our daily 30-minute walk to town, we are greeted on Cours Saint Louis by a black-and-white sign that announces livraisons tolérées, "deliveries tolerated." The choice of verb intrigues. Deliveries on this busy street, part of the circular route that carries traffic around the city, are not allowed. They are not accepted or encouraged. They are tolerated.

It's a sensibility, it seems, that applies to the country's presidential election, too. Tolerance, at least of personal style and eccentricity, remains eminently French, even as the country struggles in choosing its next president with issues of economic uncertainty, dwindling influence, and growing immigration. One of the two remaining candidates in the presidential runoff, to be held May 6, Socialist Ségolène Royal, had four children out of wedlock and has never married her partner. The wife of the other leading candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, recently left him for awhile, but returned. Such facts might cause ripples in an American political race. En France, c'est la vie.

But the next two weeks of campaigning in this country's presidential runoff just might strain the civil manner in which life, business, and politics are carried out here. With the conservative Mr. Sarkozy holding a polling edge over Ms. Royal, one commentator on BBC television Sunday night suggested that Royal might try to make the final vote a referendum on the character of her opponent. Things could get nasty.

Sarkozy, after all, is a candidate who has alienated many in France's immigrant communities. As interior minister, he branded as "thugs" the unemployed youths in the weary Paris suburb where violence flared 18 months ago. He has not campaigned there despite promises to do so. He has offended many French leftists and centrists alike by courting the supporters of rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen and by proposing to create a "ministry of immigration and national identity," with undertones of Big Brother.

"He is personally very controversial," an acquaintance, a Parisian economist who supports Sarkozy, told us when we visited earlier this month. "Many people do not like him."

But, as with our acquaintance, Sarkozy also is the candidate of choice among those who would cast themselves as economic modernists, those who say France can no longer tolerate a social welfare state that in their view impedes growth and progress.

Though his words have grown more cautious as the campaign has progressed, Sarkozy has positioned himself as the candidate more willing to change an economic climate that rigidly sets the work week at 35 hours and that creates barriers for employers seeking to lay off workers.

Such change is appealing to many troubled by economic conditions in a country in which the official unemployment rate sits at about 8.5 percent (some would put the unofficial rate higher) and the national debt keeps spiraling. France's gross domestic product per capita has fallen from seventh in the world to 17th in the past 25 years, according to The New York Times.

Royal, meanwhile, has raised concerns of her own, both in terms of her command of the issues and her ability to lead. While she has improved as a stump speaker, commentators criticize the vagaries of her campaign promises. Of late, she has unabashedly campaigned as woman and nurturer, sort of a "mother France" counterpart to Sarkozy's law-and-order image.

The candidates' blemishes didn't stop an astounding 84 percent of eligible voters from casting ballots in Sunday's first round, which winnowed the field from 12 to two. By contrast, 64 percent of Americans voted in the 2004 presidential election.

In this country, where dogs are allowed off leash and beneath the legs of owners in sidewalk cafes; where passengers punch bus tickets, if they wish, on something akin to an honor system; and where a scantily clad model on a billboard ad proclaims "avec moi, pas d'abstention" (with me, no abstention), issues of tolerance and how willing the French are to extend it to their governance are sure to influence the election outcome.

Few believe France is ready to abandon its traditions, its gracious sense of time used well but without haste, its sometimes stubborn independence from the United States and its European Union partners. But the degree to which it is willing to tolerate change and modernize its economic climate, and the degree to which it is willing to tolerate and embrace growing numbers of underemployed Northern African and other immigrants could help decide who wins May 6.

Whichever candidate comes out ahead, the new president will face considerable skepticism from an electorate with reservations about both candidates. No matter. If deliveries can be tolerated, presumably presidents can be, too.

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He is living in Aix-en-Provence while on sabbatical.

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