France's Two-Week Referendum

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 23/04/07):

The leading conservative candidate had warned French voters for weeks that the nation is undergoing a "national identity crisis" that saps its political and economic vitality. The main leftist candidate raised the alarm that the country could be plunged into "civil war" if the other side won. Now they will take off the gloves and get tough in a sprint to the finish.

French voters settled Sunday on neo-Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal to face off in the second round of presidential elections on May 6. The elimination of 10 other candidates representing the extreme left, the extreme right and, in the case of François Bayrou, the extreme center sets the stage for a bitter two-week political duel over the limits of change in France -- and the personal vulnerabilities of the two front-runners.

Given the bitter arguments between Paris and Washington over Iraq, Americans may be relieved to hear that it will be a duel in which foreign policy will play only a minor role. But foreignness will count for much. Sarkozy, who campaigned hard as a law-and-order candidate who would place strict controls on immigration, has already come under attack from the left for being "an American neocon with a French passport" and "Bush's French poodle."

The Socialists and their allies are unlikely to resist suggesting in even more direct terms that Sarkozy -- grandson of a Hungarian immigrant -- is somehow un-French, and temperamentally unstable as well, to counter his showing Sunday.

There is already an emotional intensity to the French campaign that carries strong echoes of the escalating, polarized nomination battles underway in the United States. Both countries are saddled with unpopular, ineffective governments. Dissatisfied electorates search for new directions, new political outlets and in the case of France a new generation of leaders. Sarkozy and Royal are in their early 50s.

At the outset, French voters seemed intrigued by another similarity with the U.S. campaign -- the presence of Royal as their first serious female presidential contender. But an ineptly run campaign for the first round has dulled Royal's luster and made her competence, rather than her gender, a dominant issue.

But the second round will essentially be a referendum on Sarkozy and his promises of a "rupture" with France's highly ideological politics and the heavy state management of an economy that is in gradual decline.

Successive governments of the right and left have done little to reduce the burdens of labor market rigidities and generous social benefits. As a result, nearly half of France's working-age population depends on the government for economic support in the form of wages or aid, draining the national treasury and slowly weakening France's enviable standard of living.

Sarkozy gambled by telling voters that this pattern could not continue and listed the specific reforms he would undertake. To make those promises credible, he has with gusto criticized the recent center-right governments in which he has served under his one-time patron, outgoing President Jacques Chirac.

John McCain, Rudy Giuliani or anyone else faced with the task of running on the Republican ticket next year will want to study what Sarkozy and his lieutenants have done in recent weeks. On Friday night I listened as François Fillon, who would likely be prime minister in a Sarkozy government, ran through a long litany of recognizable failures by Chirac to support reforms -- without ever mentioning Chirac's name. The campaign audience understood perfectly that they were being treated to a textbook example of taking distance without being personally disloyal.

Royal has been unwilling to be as specific about what economic reforms -- if any -- are needed. She is also unwilling to break as cleanly with the past. She worked closely with François Mitterrand, whose election to the Elysee in 1981 inaugurated the long period of ideological confusion from which France may now be freeing itself.

A dedicated Socialist, Mitterrand nonetheless governed from the center as he skillfully smothered the Communist party. He was followed in 1995 by Chirac, who gradually became "Mitterrand by other means," in the description of a former Chirac aide who became disillusioned with the "immobility" of Chirac's two terms.

Bayrou shot up in the early polls on promises to make peace between the left and right and to develop a vague but good-hearted "center" that would not depend on established parties. But he faded quickly as Sunday's vote was counted.

The first round results suggest that the French electorate is finally sufficiently concerned about the economic future to reward political clarity, ambition and daring. But all that lies two weeks and another vote away.