- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Over the past quarter of a century France has known only two presidents. The third will almost certainly be a protege of Jacques Chirac or Francois Mitterrand, but neither Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, nor Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal, governor of a province in Western France, falls neatly into their mentor’s ideological mold. Both have shifted to the right.

Miss Royal, who would be France’s first female president, riled Socialist leadership early in the campaign with suggestions that France abandon the 35-hour work week to assist a more “flexible” economy, and deal sharply with first-time criminals. She expressed high regard for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Old-style Socialists were outraged, but polls showed Miss Royal’s less rigid attitude was well received. Mr. Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, hardly fits the traditional mold of a French presidential aspirant, and his attacks on that mainstay of the French welfare state — the 35-hour work week — have been vehement.

Miss Royal revealed her more traditionally leftist side with her “presidential pact,” a 100-point policy statement, only last week. Among the welfare handouts are an increase in France’s generous minimum wage, pensions and unemployment benefits. The proposals were hailed by the left, but the fiscally responsible Economist magazine calls the proposals “a long wishlist of spending pledges” that provide “little explanation as to how any of them would be paid for.” Miss Royal may be shoring up her political base; with a third contender, Francois Bayrou, threatening to close the gap and siphon support from the left, the Socialist candidate is feeling pressure to woo her traditional backers. In 2002, the Socialist candidate moved to the center early and lost his spot in a runoff against Mr. Chirac to far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

As Miss Royal is more conservative than expected of a Socialist candidate, particularly in her rhetoric on social issues, so Mr. Sarkozy stands to the right of Mr. Chirac. Mr. Sarkozy is a French law-and-order conservative — colors which shone through, for instance, during the riots that beset the Muslim suburbs outside of Paris in 2005. Mr. Sarkozy enforced a no-tolerance policy to quell the violence. The interior minister’s rhetoric — he called the young men inhabiting Paris’ riotous suburban slums “scum” — was criticized for being vitriolic and fueling violence, but his handling of the situation overall furthered his law-and-order image.

In the past six months, Mr. Sarkozy has visited President Bush in Washington and Mr. Blair in London — a politically daring association for a French politician with presidential aspirations. Mr. Sarkozy hasn’t been particularly shy about this affiliation, and, despite the predictable reaction from his opposition on the left, Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity has grown. Mr. Sarkozy’s respect for the American and British economic models seems genuine. He supports cutting taxes and has promised to do other things to shake up things. His apparent rapport with Mr. Bush and several other politicians with whom he met during his U.S. visit bodes well for warming Franco-U.S. relations, in much the way as the ascension of Angela Merkel in Germany. Mr. Chirac is so dismayed with the tenor of his one-time protege’s campaign that he and Mr. Sarkozy are said to rarely speak anymore.

Just over a month ago, Miss Royal lead Mr. Sarkozy in the polls. The race has since swung sharply in Mr. Sarkozy’s favor. A poll published last week in Le Parisien, a French daily, showed him leading Miss Royal by seven points, 33 percent to 26 percent, and the gap is widening. Miss Royal’s support has declined three points from 29 percent in the middle of January, and Mr. Sarkozy’s has increased by the same margin. In the important head-to-head match-ups, as in a run-off on May 6 if the April 22 is indecisive, Mr. Sarkozy’s lead is even wider. Le Parisien’s poll shows him with 54 percent to Miss Royal’s 46 percent — and with the same trend. A recent poll in the daily Le Figaro gives Mr. Sarkozy a 10-point advantage in a runoff.

Several gaffes have slowed the Royal campaign, but her campaign has not imploded, but with two months until the first round election, Miss Royal must reverse the trend quickly. Momentum is clearly in Mr. Sarkozy’s favor.

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