Two cities, and France's stark choice of direction

Sunday, the nation will choose either Ségolène Royal or Nicolas Sarkozy to be its new president.

It's a tale of two cities. On the eve of Sunday's presidential elections, it might be called a tale of two Frances.

Neuilly-sur-Seine is a wealthy town in northeast Paris that is solidly for conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy. Nearby is the poor, largely immigrant suburb of Argenteuil, where Socialist Ségolène Royal is likely to win decisively.

The two are connected by a miles-long tunnel. But the metaphorical distance between them is far greater.

In Neuilly, residents say the election is mainly about changing the larded social-welfare system that allows new immigrants in France to get away with not working. People in Argenteuil say it is about an inability to find a real job in a France that is ever more costly to live in.

Divides in the two cities reflect deeper concerns and fears over expectations, identity, and security in a country where "What is France?" is the main question inthis election. It brings two profound political strains to a head, says French historian Theodore Zeldin – "two different ideas about what politics is about. [Ms.] Royal sees it as about empathy, relationships, compassion. [Mr.] Sarkozy represents authority, competition, and hard work."

In a combative debate with Ms. Royal Wednesday, Sarkozy argued that France's main problem is "a moral crisis of work.... I don't believe in a welfare state, but in merit. Above all I believe in work."

Sarkozy cut his political teeth – schools chief at age 22, mayor by 28 – in Neuilly, a Scarsdale, Bel Air, or Chevy Chase of France. The manicured public spaces and posh open markets, like the Marché des Sablons, give it a solid feel of success. Some 47 percent of working residents are professionals. The average salary is $8,000 a month. Popular French actor Gerard Depardieu lives here. So does Liliane Bettencourt, owner of L'Oreal and the richest woman in France. Neuilly has no homeless persons registered. (It pays a $1 million annual fine rather than comply with diversification rules.) In Round 1 of the election, Neuilly voted for "Sarko" at 72.3 percent.

"My whole family is for Sarkozy," says Beatrice, a housewife with frosted hair who is at the market to buy some of the season's last Coquilles Saint Jacques, a scallop-like delicacy. "I know him. He quickly sizes up situations. He is a man with energy who can change France at a time it needs to be changed, because he is strong."

Argenteuil, known for asparagus and white figs, used to be a communist bastion – part of the "red belt" of revolutionary suburbs that ringed Paris. Karl Marx lived here for a time. So did painter Claude Monet. Today the city is a working-class bedroom community for Paris. It has 104,000 residents, many of whom are Arab and African immigrants, and a host of housing projects. It was a flash point in 2005 rioting.

A France unfamiliar to many

"Argenteuil is like the Bronx," says a cafe owner. "Some neighborhoods are for Sarkozy, some are for Royal."

A section called Val Nord is the heart of the immigrant population. Women don Muslim head coverings, males wear soccer shirts sporting the name "Zidane," the Algerian superstar ousted from the World Cup finals for head-butting an opponent. It's easy to find a boucherie halal with meats prepared according to Islamic codes. When traditional middle-class French complain that they are less able to recognize their country, Val Nord is what they mean.

Val Nord is also the site of the Dalle – a vast cement plaza, a meeting place ringed with budget stores, and a high-rise housing project studded with satellites dishes for Arabic TV.

The Dalle is now known in all of France as the place where Sarkozy, as interior minister, came on Oct. 25, 2005, and spoke of ridding the area of racailles, or "scum." Tensions in the banlieue, as these suburbs are known,had been festering. But two days later, riots broke out.

"We no longer refer to the Dalle," a city official here says. "We call it the 'terrace of Argenteuil.' "

Streets are safe in the day. But as Joseph, a 26-year-old from Chad, says, "I don't like going out at night alone."

In Val Nord, residents say they are voting Royal. The name Sarkozy brings a volatile reaction. At 8 p.m. on April 22, when French officials announced Sarkozy scored first in Round 1, an angry shout echoed up and down the projects, residents say.

The two cities are also competing for actual voters. Other than Paris, France's greatest spike in voter registration – 8.5 percent – came in suburbs around Argenteuil. But it also jumped 7.9 percent in Neuilly, according to the interior ministry.

Street talk reveals left-right poles

Of course, French elections are complex and can't be reduced to social welfare and the restive suburbs. Days before the vote, pundits say the election may swing on perceptions of character among an estimated 7 million voters. "People who don't know who to vote for don't trust her [Royal] and are afraid of him [Sarkozy]," says Pierre Haski, whose new website, "Rue 89," goes online May 5.

Still, street talk in Neuilly and Argenteuil in dozens of interviews reflect the major poles of left and right in France.

In Neuilly, Sylvia, who used to work for an international corporation, sums up many conversations: "We are fed up with the state service employees," she says. "We are the only country in Europe with so many state workers. We pay for them, they are unaccountable, and they feed the welfare state. In France you can make ¤380 to ¤500 a month and never get out of bed.

"If Sarkozy does what he says, he will make people work," she continues. "I'm not unreasonable. You have to help people, that's French. But people are coming from Africa, from Arabia, from Morocco, who … know they can sign up for welfare. They … send money home to Africa. We can't have our social security used like this. We are just giving money away."

In Argenteuil, a tall bearded Moroccan, Abderrahim, offers a contrast. He came to France 30 years ago and is at the town hall to register his 4-year-old daughter and infant son as citizens. He worked eight years as a driver, then lost the job. He says, "I have a daughter and son, and I've been out of work three years. I can't believe when people say we don't care about a job. It costs ¤2,500 a month to live here properly with a family of four. I get ¤700 a month unemployment, and I pay ¤250 [a month] rent."

A city official adds, "I know a lot of the unemployed in our city are hungry for jobs. They want to work. The problem is that many of them didn't finish school, and that puts them in a different labor category."

Views on the Middle East represents another important divide. Neuilly is a center of Jewish life in Paris. Sarkozy's own Jewish roots and his insistence that France create a more robust relationship with Israel, is highly prized. "Sarkozy … is for close ties with Israel, and that's the tipping point for me," says Nicole, who attends the synagogue.

Muslims in Argenteuil worry France's longstanding sympathy with the Arab world is in danger. "Tears will fall from the sky if France becomes like America in the Arab world," said one Arab standing at the Dalle. Around the corner was a poster, "Stop Israeli terrorism in the Middle East."

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Nicolas Sarkozy: A pro-American 'Napoleon'

PARIS –– Nicolas Sarkozy thinks change in France requires great power and will. And he's made it clear for years he has ample reserves of both.

Mr. Sarkozy is the most driven and articulate, or arrogant and self-assured candidate for French president, depending on the source; he's loved on the right, quite feared by the left. His ideas and blunt style are new: he is pro-American. He speaks candidly of the 35-hour workweek as "the worst idea" France ever put into law.

Sarkozy represents "rupture," as he likes to say – rupture with what he says is a bloated and ineffectual French state system. Supporters say he has a vision of a strong, new France; he may understand the inner workings of the system better than anyone, experts say.

Sarkozy was called to his first political speech at age 20 by Jacques Chirac (he was given five minutes and took 20). At age 28 he became mayor of a ritzy Paris suburb. He is likened, favorably and unfavorably, to Napoleon – small of stature, but a giant at expanding his influence. He's been "running for president since age 5," a supporter says; the Financial Times editorialized that Sarkozy "wants to be president almost too much."

Mr. Chirac was his mentor until 1995, when Sarkozy backed a Chirac opponent. He started openly running for president in 2004 on a "break with the past" platform, deeply irritating President Chirac. Experts do note that Sarkozy is the one heir apparent Chirac didn't neutralize.

In a French context, Sarkozy might combine the campaigning brilliance of a Bill Clinton (Arkansas governor at age 32), with the pragmatic neoconservatism of a Richard Cheney. Last week Sarkozy blasted the 1968 French student movement. The leftist heritage of May 1968 should be "liquidated," Sarkozy said, for the damage it did to "morality, authority, work, and national identity."

Apart from his free-market push, Sarkozy is best known for cracking down in France's strife-torn immigrant suburbs. He has sophisticated ideas for civic integration; but it is not a stretch to say Sarkozy is widely hated by Arabs and African migrants, according to numerous street interviews.

Sarkozy is himself from immigrant stock. His maternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Greece who fled Paris during the Nazi occupation. His father fled Hungary when communist Russia invaded, started a Paris advertising firm – then left the family. The father's abandonment hit Sarkozy hard and shaped his outlook, he has said.

He strove to be accepted as fully French, say experts. Unlike nearly all French political elites, including Ségolène Royal, he did not attend Ecole Nationale d'Administration – a finishing school for the political class.

Sarkozy's positions shift as do Ms. Royal's. He's been criticized for changing his stance on the war in Iraq as well as on a new French aircraft carrier. He is for globalization, but wants to protect French industry.

He wants France in a stronger Europe, but not until he gets France "back to work," to use one of his campaign slogans.

Sources: Sarkozy's campaign website; Sarkozy speech transcripts; interviews with broadcaster Christine Ockrent, Pierre Heski, former editor of Liberation, Nicolas Jabko of Sciences Po University in Paris, Arun Kapil of the American University in Paris, and others; staff research.

Ségolène Royal: Rookie with 100-point plan

In a year, Socialist Ségolène Royal has stepped from obscurity to the apex of French politics. She sidestepped party heavyweights, and dazzled France: The first woman champion, a fresh face, a new style for an ailing nation. Ms. Royal, who has been minister of environment, ran as an outsider bent on change. It was a fairy-tale story, and she became known as a "madonna" of the polls.

The glow wore off around January. As the campaign ramped up under dark winter skies, Royal got pounded. A woman who, supporters say, relies on instinct and independence, she showed she wasn't a policy wonk. She seemed inexperienced. She had trouble answering tough questions about economic reform. She made gaffes on foreign affairs: praised China's justice system but wanted to ban even civil nuclear power in Iran. French women didn't especially rally behind her. She looked vulnerable.

Still, having rallied and survived to win a runoff, Royal is in a position to win. What she would do remains slightly unclear. She wants to bring reform and discipline to France's welfare state model; she has a 100-point plan. She wants to raise the minimum wage and make a 35-hour workweek even more institutionalized. How to pay for it is the question.

Royal feels all problems can be solved through French ingenuity, both supporters and critics say.

Supports say her main strengths are discipline and a sense of justice. She has often faced steep odds. At age 19 she brought a case against her absent father for support. Royal was born in Dakar, Senegal, but grew up in Chamagne, a rural village in northeast France. According to an October 2006 article by Paris Match, her Army colonel father was zealously Catholic and old-school patriarchal. He had a shaved head, a monocle, and raised the family "like legionnaires," Royal has said. He prized corporal punishment and Gregorian chants; Royal attended mass in the morning and vespers in the evening.

Royal went to the elite École Nationale d'Administration, where she met François Hollande, her partner and father of their four children (and current head of the Socialist Party). Party insiders say Royal does not have an old-boy network. But mentors include Jacques Attali and François Mitterand. She dislikes the bar scene and dirty jokes that are standard in male-dominated French political culture.

Royal is attacked as a rookie campaigner with a scattered platform. Some insiders say this ignores the complexities she's faced: Nicolas Sarkozy has run a wide-open attack-style campaign and has answered to no one, but Royal hasn't enjoyed that luxury. She's had her own party, as well as other candidates, to face. She outflanked the old-line Socialists, went directly to voters to create a new center in her party, pushed reform, retreated under attack from her own left, then declared herself a "free woman" after winning April 22. Royal has had more fronts to fight on, more people to please. She's done so while maintaining composure, say supporters. Politically, the saying about Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire may apply: She had to take the same steps – only backwards, and in high heels.

Sources: Royal's website; French government profile; translation of Oct. 5-11, 2006, Paris Match article, "Ségolène in a state of grace," by Philippe Alexandre; interviews with broadcaster Christine Ockrent, Pierre Heski, former editor of Liberation, Nicolas Jabko of Sciences Po University in Paris, Arun Kapil of the American University in Paris, and others; staff research.

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