Either way, French voting for change

The presidential election pits liberal Segolene Royal against conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

Published May 6, 2007

PARIS - France's presidential election today is a ground-breaker - a choice between an immigrant's son and an army officer's daughter, each offering a radically different vision of how to put a dispirited nation back on track.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal are both mavericks who changed the rules of French politics and energized an electorate hungry for change. Their rise marks a generational shift, because whoever wins will be the nation's first president born after World War II.

Of three final polls, taken Wednesday and Thursday, one put them even and two gave Sarkozy the lead.

Sarkozy, a conservative, wants to free up labor markets, make the French work longer hours and whip them into shape for the global marketplace. Royal is the Socialist Party candidate who would save France's generous welfare system from the lash of Sarkozy's "neoconservative ideology."

Both have ideas for restoring national self-confidence, which lately has been battered by economic decline, unrest in France's immigrant slums, and shrinking clout in the new, united Europe that France once sought to lead.

Sarkozy doesn't hide his admiration for the United States, and Royal uses this to paint him as the yes-man of American capitalism. Sarkozy calls the Iraq invasion a mistake. Royal calls it a catastrophe.

But France's perennial frictions with Washington never came up in the candidates' debate Wednesday. Domestic affairs dominated the often peppery exchanges.

Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, and the economy has stagnated around 1.5 percent annual growth in the past five years. Youths in housing projects burned cars for three weeks in 2005, awakening France to the problem of a deeply discontented immigrant underclass.

Rioting flared again in March last year, this time against an effort to loosen hiring-and-firing rules in the labor market.

During President Jacques Chirac's 12 years in office, little reform was accomplished. What happens in the post-Chirac era matters deeply to the public, judging by voter engagement.

Turnout in the April 22 first-round vote was an unusually high 84 percent. And the two candidates, nicknamed Sarko and Sego, exemplify the feeling that a turning point has been reached.

Both are rebels who broke their parties' molds. Both are self-made. Sarkozy says his foreign roots - his father is Hungarian - hindered his ascent. Royal, an unmarried mother of four, says her gender hindered hers.

The resemblance stops there.

Sarkozy calls France's 35-hour work week "an absurdity." Aged 52, he is the law-and-order candidate who, as interior minister, cracked down on drunken driving, crime and illegal immigration, and who promises tougher sentencing for repeat offenders.

He is intense, ambitious and blunt. Visiting a crime-ridden slum in 2005, he called young delinquents "scum" and refused to apologize. He wants to create a "Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, " an idea that French liberals find sinister.

In a nation that treasures wine with its meals, he's a nondrinker.

Royal, 53, is already "Madame la Presidente" of the western French region she governs. On the campaign trail she often talked about her four children, and appealed to women to vote for her simply because she is female. She wants to raise the minimum wage, create 500, 000 state-funded starter jobs for youths and build 120, 000 subsidized housing units a year. But she has had trouble convincing economists that France can afford it.

On Friday, the last day campaigning was allowed, Royal pulled out all the stops, warning that riots could break out again if Sarkozy is elected. Sarkozy retorted: "She is not in a good mood this morning; it must be the polls."