- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal advanced to a runoff in yesterday’s French presidential election, presenting the country with a fundamental left-right choice between a conservative who could push his anxious nation toward painful change and a socialist who would be the country’s first female leader.

Miss Royal is the first woman to get this close to the helm of this major European economic, military and diplomatic power after a campaign marked by suspense, surprise and unusually dynamic candidates who lured voters to the ballot box in near-record numbers.

Mr. Sarkozy has the advantage heading into the May 6 runoff. Partial results from the Interior Ministry, based on all polling stations except those voting in embassies overseas, had Mr. Sarkozy first, with 31.1 percent, followed by Miss Royal, with 25.8 percent. Turnout was huge at 84.6 percent of the electorate — the highest in more than 40 years and just shy of the record set in 1965.

Either way, France will get its first president with no memory of World War II to replace Jacques Chirac, 74, who is stepping down after 12 years to usher in a new generation of candidates.

The first round of voting shut out 10 other hopefuls, from Trotskyists to far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Le Pen had hoped to repeat his shockingly strong showing of 2002, but instead finished a weak fourth.

Both Mr. Sarkozy, a Hungarian immigrant’s son, and Miss Royal, a military officer’s daughter who beat Socialist heavyweights to win her party’s nomination, are in their 50s and have traveled long, arduous roads to get to this point.

The winner’s task will be tough: France is a troubled nation, still haunted by the riots of youths of North African Muslim origin in poor neighborhoods in 2005.

Decades of stubbornly high unemployment, increasing competition from economies such as China’s and a sense that France is losing influence in the world made this a passionate campaign. Both Miss Royal and Mr. Sarkozy have promised to restore strength to France, but offer starkly different paths toward that goal.

Mr. Sarkozy would loosen labor laws and cut taxes to invigorate the sluggish economy, while Miss Royal would increase government spending and preserve the country’s generous worker protections.

“I extend my hand to all those women and men who think, as I do, that it is not only possible but urgent to abandon a system that no longer works,” Miss Royal said.

The runoff offers “a clear choice between two very different paths,” she said.

Outside Socialist Party headquarters in Paris, supporters reacted to the result with joy, chanting, “We’re going to win.”

Mr. Sarkozy told cheering supporters last night that by choosing him and Miss Royal, voters “clearly marked their wish to go to the very end of the debate between two ideas of the nation, two programs for society, two value systems, two concepts of politics.”

Despite Mr. Sarkozy’s lead, he faces a powerful “anything but Sarkozy” push by those who call him too arrogant and explosive to run a nuclear-armed nation. He once called young delinquents “scum,” a remark that outraged the residents of poor neighborhoods and has dogged him politically.

“It won’t be a walk in the park” for Mr. Sarkozy, even though he is in a strong position heading into the runoff, said Bruno Cautres, a researcher at the prestigious Institute for Political Sciences.

Miss Royal, a lawmaker and feminist who says she makes political decisions based on what she would do for her children, shot to popularity by promising to run France differently. But she has stumbled on foreign policy. In one gaffe, she praised the Chinese during a trip to Beijing for their swift justice system. Many voters question whether she is “presidential” enough to run France. For Miss Royal and Mr. Sarkozy, a scramble is now on for voters in the middle ground and others who deserted the left and right in favor of farmer’s son and lawmaker Francois Bayrou, who placed third yesterday with 18 percent.

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