- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On Sunday, the French will head to the polls to take the first step in determining the direction of their country’s political future after 12 years of President Jacques Chirac. Former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has been the frontrunner for some time, but with a surprisingly high number of undecided voters — still close to 40 percent, according to some polls — it’s conceivable that any one of four leading candidates could end up in a run-off.

Mr. Sarkozy carries the mantle of Mr. Chirac’s center-right political party, but beyond mutual antipathy, the two have little in common. On economic policy, Mr. Sarkozy’s platform is pro-growth with less state intervention. He has attacked some of the pillars of the French welfare state, particularly the 35-hour work week, as the impediments to economic growth that they are. Mr. Sarkozy took the unusual step of traveling to Britain and the United States, unabashedly meeting with politicians and even publishing a book, “Testimony,” in English. Mr. Sarkozy dispenses with Mr. Chirac’s counterproductive knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

Mr. Sarkozy is not afraid to talk about immigration. To think of him only as he is frequently caricatured in the press — as the law-and-order interior minister that wanted to rid the banlieues of the “scum” with a high-pressure hose — overlooks the complexity of his position. His tough rhetoric may have alienated many of France’s Muslims, but before the campaign he was an advocate for a form of affirmative action and helped create the Council of the French Muslim Community, giving French Muslims an official voice. Many observers think that Mr. Sarkozy may have backed away from these ideas during his campaign to ensure support from voters to his right, and may return to his older ideas if elected.

Segolene Royal, the Socialist challenger, stumbled on the campaign trail with several gaffes. Miss Royal is a fresh face for the Socialists, but her economic agenda is comprised of stale initiatives that hardly reflect her declared admiration for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The most recent poll from French newspaper Le Monde shows Mr. Sarkozy with a slim lead over Miss Royal — 27 percent to 24 percent — and Francois Bayrou, who surged briefly as a centrist and political outsider, falling to 19 percent. Jean Marie Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is fourth with just over 15 percent. Although Mr. Le Pen trails the leading three, his support has in the past defied the expectation of pollsters, and he polls higher now than in 2002, when he beat Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin.

The outcome of the election is still subject to speculation, but its importance in shaping the future of France could hardly be more evident.

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