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Classic Vote Takes Shape in France

More than 44 million French voters are eligible to cast ballots on Sunday to elect a new president who will succeed Jacques Chirac.

Sunday's French presidential election is a classic contest between the center-right and the center-left: neo-Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy faces the Socialist Party candidate, Segolene Royal. They were the two top vote getters among 12 candidates in the first round of elections held April 22, thus forcing Sunday's run-off.

Simon Serfaty, an expert on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this election represents a generational change.

"You have to understand that for the past 26 years, only two men have governed France - - that was [Francois] Mitterrand, the socialist, who was in office for four 14 years and Jacques Chirac, conservative, who was in office for 12 years. And even those 26 years understated the durability of these two men. Mitterrand had been a candidate and had lost twice before he finally won in 1981 and he began to serve as a member of the French government all the way back to 1957. And Chirac first served as a junior minister in a Gaullist government in 1967 and was prime minister in 1976," says Serfaty. "So the fact that Sarkozy and Royal would be so very new was cause for excitement, quite frankly, for the French public."

A TV Personality Campaign

The French press has used the word "mediatique" to describe the presidential campaign - - meaning it was essentially a television event driven by two very different personalities.

On the one hand, you have Nicolas Sarkozy, who held several ministerial posts under Chirac's presidency. Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Nicolas Sarkozy is a polarizing figure.

"Sarkozy is best known for being confrontational on the issue of the 'national identity' of France, which is in some ways a euphemism for saying, dealing with what many Frenchmen perceive to be excessive levels of Muslim integration, the unwillingness of those Muslims to integrate into the social mainstream. And there were riots in the 'banlieu', in the suburbs of Paris, in which he was well-remembered for referring to some of those people as 'scum'. And it was very confrontational," says Kupchan.

Andrew Moravcsik, Director of Princeton University's European Union Program, agrees. "A very, people might say, pushy, tough-minded politician, speaks his mind, has been former Minister of the Interior - - which means he has been in charge of police affairs and so on. And has talked tough on immigration, on the riots. And on French TV at night, where they make fun of their own politicians in a way unlike almost any other country in the world, he is portrayed as a puppet in a black leather jacket with a stick to beat people with," says Moravcsik.

On the other hand there is Segolene Royal, the first woman with a reasonable chance of winning the French presidency. She also held various ministerial posts such as in charge of the environment and schools. Once again, Andrew Moravcsik.

According to Andrew Moravcsik, "She talks a lot about democracy, about listening to people, draws on many of the traditional themes of the Socialist Party in France - - about caring for people, social welfare and so on. But she is also, underneath the surface, a member of the reformist faction of the Socialist Party - - so more of a centrist in French politics, more open to economic reform, more open to new ways of doing things. And likes to portray that in part by pointing out that she's in favor of law and order, that her father was a military man and so on," says Moravcsik.

Little Discussion of Key Issues

Analysts say because the presidential campaign revolved around two very different personalities, there were really no substantive discussions of key issues. On the domestic front, there was little talk about unemployment benefits, economic or bureaucratic reform or the future of the 35-hour work week.

And on the contentious issue of a constitution for Europe, there was also little debate. Despite that, as Charles Kupchan points out, the two candidates have opposing views.

"Segolene Royal has indicated that she would like to see the European constitution revised and go back to a referendum; take it back to the French voters who said 'no' in 2005," says Kupchan. "Sarkozy would like to pull out the most important aspects of the constitution - the revision of the voting rules, the appointment of a president and a single foreign minister - and then go back to the parliament for ratification, thereby avoiding the trials and tribulations of a new referendum."

Dominique Moisi, senior adviser to the French Institute of International Affairs in Paris, goes even farther. He says neither candidate addressed international issues.

"The paradox was that the world looked at the French election with great interest. And in the French debate, the world was totally absent. I don't remember an election where international issues were, at this level, absent," says Moisi.

He believes Sarkozy and Royal are more interested in addressing French domestic concerns than changing the country's foreign policy.

Latest public opinion surveys indicate Nicolas Sarkozy is ahead of Segolene Royal by about five percentage points. Analysts say the result of this Sunday's presidential election will hinge on the six-point-eight million voters who cast their ballots in the first round for centrist Francois Bayrou. Bayrou has refused to endorse either Sarkozy or Royal.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.