- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

French voters are preparing to answer appeals to revive the nation’s pride, boost its economy and help solidify Europe’s status as a giant in a competitive and divided world.

That, in effect, is the message emerging from the verbiage of the main candidates vying for France’s presidency. The first round of voting takes place April 22, followed by a contest between the two finalists on May 6.

The European Union, of which France is a founding member, considers the elections to be crucial, not only for France but also for its European partners. All remember that it was France and the Netherlands that two years ago rejected creating a European constitution, which paralyzed the search for a charter acceptable to all 27 EU member countries.

The electorate is torn between voters who would like to see radical change, and those who fear anything that might destabilize the traditional, if not outdated, concept of governance. Both camps have little confidence in the present political class.

The high profile of Segolene Royal, a woman and one of the two leading candidates, appears to simplify the issue for voters tired of conventional politics. Philippe Labro, a French political commentator, said: “The issue now is about a man and a woman — about deciding whom you are going to sleep with after the 8 p.m. television news.”

Some candidates claim they are defending the “identity of France,” others speak of building a stronger European unity. And, according to Stephen Clarke, an author of works about France, many French voters “deep down distrust modernism. They long for the days when theirs was the international language of diplomacy, and when only France made sparkling wine.”

The two candidates for the presidential Elysee Palace most favored by opinion polls symbolize “the new France” and constitute almost incredible “firsts” in French history: a female candidate against the son of a Hungarian immigrant, at a time when immigration control is a main national issues.

Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, is a former Interior minister, a first-generation French politician born to a Hungarian immigrant and French mother. He is the candidate of the centrist Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), now in power. Immigration and national pride are the hallmarks of his electoral campaign.

Segolene Royal, 53, is the candidate of the opposition Socialists and a former Cabinet member in previous Socialist governments. A mother of four, she has not married her companion of 26 years, Francois Hollande, secretary-general of the Socialist Party. She veers to the left on the economy but also urges discipline, traditional values and respect for the national flag.

Emerging from the shadow of relative political obscurity is Francois Bayrou, 55, leader of the small centrist Union for French Democracy. He held two ministerial posts in the 1990s and is regarded by many as a dark horse, although his popularity ratings so far are well below those of Mr. Sarkozy and Miss Royal.

As the campaign intensified, opinion polls increasingly favored Mr. Sarkozy over Miss Royal. Not a single recent survey predicted a Socialist victory.

Nonetheless Miss Royal continued her electoral battle on an anti-capitalist theme, in one of her statements attacking banks “enriching themselves on the backs of the poorest.”

Mr. Bayrou represents the “third force,” a term dear to French headline writers. He claims that his agricultural background identifies him with “the real France” more than the other candidates. In the 2002 presidential election he obtained 6.8 percent of the vote.

All three bring a new generation to the French political scene. Their age — all in their 50s — is in sharp contrast to previous candidates for France’s highest job and to Jacques Chirac, the departing president, who is 74 years old.

Trailing in opinion polls behind the first three is a noisy veteran rabble-rouser — Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right National Front — who offers such slogans as “keep France for the French,” plus a few others with a near-fascist vocabulary. Although now 78 years old, he has not given up his unfruitful political struggle, using the France’s 4 million Muslims as a fright issue.

Mr. Le Pen finds support in fringe groups, including former French settlers forced out from North Africa, still nostalgic for the colonial past and bitter against the regime that liquidated France’s former empire.

Though most French people see Mr. Le Pen as an unpleasant, often embarrassing political joke, analysts consider him to be a serious danger. In the previous presidential election, dissatisfied voters unexpectedly eliminated Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of voting, pushing Mr. Le Pen into the decisive second vote — and eventual defeat. But it was a very close call.

The history of French elections is full of unexpected developments, but this time opinion poll figures are decisively against Mr. Le Pen and eight other fringe candidates. They include Jose Bovet, an anti-globalization campaigner fond of destroying American fast-food restaurants, and Marie Georges Buffet, a former head of the dwindling French Communist Party.

The eight have a combined voting strength of between 10 percent and 15 percent, and are hardly major players in France’s political scene.

A number of foreign observers — and many French voters — wonder how much the political demand for “change” is valid or necessary. France is a major political power — albeit capricious in its foreign policy. Its economy, though slowed by international factors, is basically sound, and its political class is committed to the European Union, despite the defeat of the proposed constitution in a referendum.

France is the world’s leading tourist attraction, with 60 million visitors last year. To many of its inhabitants, it is a comfortable and “complete” country, with 13th-month salaries at Christmas, a growing number of vacation residences, coveted ski slopes and several thousand miles of sandy beaches.

However, the comfortable world ends at the outskirts of major cities, where immigrants from Africa have settled in jerry-built housing known as “cites,” which have become breeding grounds for tension, unrest and violence. Police fear entering some cites, from which anger periodically spills outside in orgies of looting and car-burning amid cries of “underprivilege.”

Immigration and the problems it has brought is mentioned in most campaign speeches, but no candidate has come up with a satisfactory solution.

Clouding the pre-election atmosphere is what French pundits describe as the “mixed legacy” of Mr. Chirac, a conservative who leaves the scene after 12 years of often-controversial presidency and more than 20 years in politics.

Abandoned by many supporters who felt he had overstayed his tenure, Mr. Chirac reluctantly announced his resignation, and support for Mr. Sarkozy, whom he often considered his rival.

He leaves behind a decision not to support the Bush administration’s war on Iraq, a decision that apparently pleased the electorate. But the same electorate rejected Mr. Chirac in voting against the European constitution in a referendum. Most EU members approved the charter quietly by parliamentary vote, without exposing it to inevitable criticism.

Mr. Chirac will be remembered for having acknowledged the guilt of the French state in handing over its Jewish citizens to the Nazis. He also has several pending charges of corruption while he was mayor of Paris that he has so far managed to shrug off.

European unity and its prospects have been pushed to the center of the French presidential campaign, during which candidates advertise their qualifications to best personify “La France” and its national interests.

For the time being, the popularity ratings of the two leading candidates — Mr. Sarkozy and Miss Royal — vacillate in a narrow range around 40 percent in the second round of the vote, with Mr. Sarkozy favored by pollsters.

Inevitably, sex has crept out of the closet during the campaign. Some wonder why Miss Royal never married her companion and father of her children, and about the sex life of such an attractive woman, who seems to look younger every day.

Socialist critics remember that Mr. Sarkozy’s wife, Cecilia, left France with a lover but was induced back when her husband decided to run for president.

Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign is studded with patriotic references, and some confusing statements. He has thanked Mr. Chirac for keeping France out of the Iraq war, but worried aloud that U.S. withdrawal “too soon” would lead to chaos.

He has assured his backers that he will not “bend to any foreign pressure,” but has also asked “our American friends to let us be free — free to be their best friends” and agrees that “the idea of Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable.”

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