- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

PARIS — The French have had it rough of late.

They proved powerless to prevent war in Iraq — tough for a nation that thinks its opinion should count.

They are worried about globalization, global warming and the Chinese economic juggernaut. And their aspirations of being a leader of Europe — and of making Europe a counterweight to the United States — took a beating when voters opted against greater European integration in 2005.

All this forms a weighty backdrop for France’s first presidential elections in five years. Here, in question-and-answer form, is a look at the issues, personalities and possible outcomes.

Q: Can France, Europe and the United States expect anything new from this vote?

A: Yes. For starters, incumbent President Jacques Chirac decided after 12 years in power not to run, so a new era is starting. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair retiring this year, too, Europe will get new management for two of its biggest economic, military and diplomatic powers.

Mr. Chirac’s departure should help clear the air with the United States. He and President Bush never really saw eye to eye — on Iraq, climate change, the Middle East and other issues. But France’s love-hate relationship with the United States means there will always be tension across the Atlantic in some shape or form.

Q: Who will the next French president be?

A: Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be the favorite for the job he’s been eyeing for years. The Hungarian immigrant’s son and former interior, finance and budget minister has been leading polls since the start of the year. Socialist Segolene Royal, who would be France’s first female president, is polling second, with farmer’s son Francois Bayrou third.

But French voters like to spring surprises. They bucked the European trend by voting against the EU’s proposed constitution in 2005. And they scared themselves and Europe by propelling a far-right nationalist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, into a runoff against Mr. Chirac in the last election in 2002. To keep Mr. Le Pen out of power, voters rallied around Mr. Chirac in the second vote; he scored a record 82 percent. Mr. Le Pen, 78, is running again this year and polls place him fourth.

Q: What’s wrong with France?

A: Plenty. The country had three weeks of riots in 2005 by young blacks and Arabs infuriated by discrimination and hopeless futures in their tough housing projects where many French and even police fear to go.

China, India and other more dynamic economies have sucked away industrial jobs. And the French fear their cherished but expensive social, health and public services may be sacrificed to keep the nation competitive. In short, the times are a changin’ and that sits ill with many in a still surprisingly conservative country.

Q: If Mr. Sarkozy wins, will France change?

A: He hopes so. He has said that the French system needs fixing because it can’t provide enough jobs. He wants the French to work more and says France’s 35-hour workweek is untenable. In a country where big business is distrusted — three Trotskyists are on today’s ballot — he stands out by saying that he believes in capitalism. But Mr. Sarkozy is no unbridled free-marketer. His biggest challenge will be convincing the reform-resistant French that changes are needed, even desirable.

Q: What would a Mr. Sarkozy presidency mean for the rest of the world?

A: Mr. Sarkozy, a teetotaler like Mr. Bush, is the most pro-American of the top candidates. He admires the “energy and fluidity” of Americans but says their “messianic side … can be tiresome.” Critics hounded him for meeting Mr. Bush last September; former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius called Mr. Sarkozy “Bush’s lapdog.” That sort of unease with U.S. power means no French president can cozy up to Washington. In a poll last December, 75 percent of respondents said they want their next president to keep a distance from U.S. foreign policy; just 25 percent said the allies’ stances should be similar.

Mr. Sarkozy says he would not support any military action to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, and he wants “to go as far as possible with sanctions.” He says Mr. Chirac was right not to join the war in Iraq and that the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a “mistake,” even though he was “the worst of men.”

Mr. Sarkozy also does not want predominantly Muslim Turkey to join the European Union.

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