A classic battle

France's left-right election fight goes down to the wire

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The Gazette, Saturday, May 5, 2007

Tomorrow's presidential vote in France is a classic runoff election between left and right. Or in this case, between Sego and Sarko.

Sego is Segolene Royal, candidate of the Socialist Party, standard bearer of the left. Sarko is Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate of the right-wing Union pour un mouvement populaire, and the clear favourite to win tomorrow's runoff. Yesterday's Ipsos daily tracking poll gave him an eight-point lead, 54-46, up half a point in each of the two nights since Wednesday's important televised debate between the two candidates. Within the margin of error, Royal could still win, but everything would have to fall her way in terms of undecideds and centrist voters from the first round two weeks ago.

It's the most important French presidential election since 1981, in which Francois Mitterrand and the Socialists broke the right's stranglehold on the presidency for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

For one thing, this is the first presidential election in which not one, but both, candidates represent generational change. Every previous French president has been shaped or marked by the Second World War. Sego and Sarko are the first baby boomers to be on the runoff ballot.

For another, they have reversed traditional left-right roles. Royal, 53, the socialist champion, is a graduate of France's elite Ecole nationale d'administration, breeding ground of the French political establishment, and rose through the ranks during the 14-year Mitterrand presidency to become environment minister in the early 1990s. The first woman to reach a French presidential runoff, she is also the candidate of continuity, defender of France's culture of entitlement and the 35-hour week.

Sarkozy is the son of an affluent Hungarian refugee who fled the Soviet occupation of his homeland at the end of the war, signed up for the French Foreign Legion, eventually moving to Paris, where he became an advertising executive and married a French woman of Jewish descent. Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, dropped out of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, the elite Sciences Po, and put himself through law school at the University of Nanterre.

(He and Royal have one interesting biographical note in common in that both successfully sued their fathers for non-support of their families. They also have led interesting personal lives - she has four children with her common-law partner, Francois Hollande, head of the Socialist Party; he has an on-again, off-again marriage to his second wife, Cecelia Ciganer-Albeniz. After all, it's France, where allowances are made for the private lives of public figures).

Sarkozy's resume includes a stint as finance minister but it was his second term as the hardline interior minister that propelled him to front-runner status in a bid to be to the right's successor to Jacques Chirac after 12 years in the Elysee. When les bainlieues, the high-rise projects in the suburbs of Paris , erupted in ethnic unrest in the fall of 2005, it was Sarkozy who put down the riots.

While many asked sociological questions about why the outskirts of Paris were burning, Sarkozy did not call the jobless youth troubled or confused, he called them "scum," which certainly drew the battle lines, and effectively propelled him to front-runner status.

Thus, the pushback from the left that Sarkozy is the xenophobic candidate of the far right, the heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen rather than Chirac. This doesn't fit his personal story line as the son of an immigrant, nor does it take account of France's own struggles with what we call "reasonable accommodation" of ethnic and religious diversity.

Just as the right resorted to a fear campaign in a desperate attempt to keep Mitterrand from the presidency in 1981, so the left have used the same tactics against Sarkozy, which has only solidified his claims to be the candidate of change in a country desperately due for it.

And so Wednesday night's debate, as always in the French runoff, was a pivotal event. Royal had to be presidential and commanding, as well as beautiful. Sarkozy had to keep his temper under control, and treat her respectfully.

Back and forth they went, one sharp and riveting exchange after another, with hardly any interruptions from the two television journalists. If you turned down the volume, she won on appearances. If you listened in, he won a couple of defining moments.

"No, I will not calm down," she said testily at one point. "No, I will not calm down. I will not calm down."

"To be president of the republic," he retorted, "you have to be calm."

This is what is known in America as the finger-on-the-nuclear-trigger moment. And according to an overnight poll, 52 per cent of the 20 million French voters watching the debate thought he won, as against only 31 per cent who thought she did.

That's kind of all she wrote. Either way, the boomer generation will be in charge.

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