France's crises focus of election

Presidential candidates talk of country's problems at home, abroad

May 06, 2007|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,Los Angeles Times

PARIS -- French politicians are masters of nuance who choose their words carefully, so it is striking that both candidates in today's presidential runoff election have talked a lot about a country in crisis.

"France is undergoing an unprecedented identity crisis," warns Nicolas Sarkozy, the center-right candidate who is considered the front-runner. "Her model of integration has broken down, her social model is failing, her cohesion withers. A terrible doubt overcomes her. She has doubts about her values, her future, her identity, her vocation."

Sarkozy and his rival, Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party, cite a long list of specific woes: Low economic growth. High unemployment. A burdened public sector that spends almost half its budget on salaries and pensions. Youth riots that revealed rage and alienation in the Muslim immigrant community. Declining French influence in Europe and beyond.

Nonetheless, the "crises" do not add up to catastrophe. France still has the world's sixth-biggest economy, a nuclear arsenal, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a muscular diplomatic corps. The transportation, health, education and cultural infrastructures are hard to beat. Most French families enjoy generous job security, vacations and retirement benefits.

The problem is that society has slid into what the French call immobilisme, or paralysis. Voters see Sarkozy and Royal as strong, youthful leaders who will finally confront it. They expect the new president to reassert French power abroad and find a way to make structural reforms at home while preserving the system's comforts.

"I think this is a moment of truth for France, and the reforms that it needs, based on the model of what is being done in Germany by Merkel and was done in Britain by Blair," said Michel Barnier, an adviser to Sarkozy, referring to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"France is historically, economically, geographically, culturally a central nation, but we have not known how to take advantage of that centrality. Our world has changed a lot, and our diplomacy must adapt to the world."

As the campaign ended, it seemed likely that Sarkozy would lead the way into that changing world. Voters felt that he performed better than Royal in a televised debate Wednesday, according to the latest polls. He has never trailed Royal in the polls, which showed his lead stable or widening going into today's runoff. During a media briefing Friday, an independent pollster all but predicted a Sarkozy victory.

"If in three days the result for Sarkozy is 53 percent or 54.5 percent, I will not be surprised," said Brice Teinturier, director of the TNS Sofres firm.

"It's very hard to imagine a reversal of the trend."

Royal's chances for an upset rest partly on hopes that overconfidence, combined with a long holiday weekend, could reduce turnout for Sarkozy. And she needs last-minute support from voters who backed centrist Francois Bayrou in last month's first-round election. Bayrou, who finished third, said Thursday that he would not vote for Sarkozy but did not endorse Royal.

No matter who wins, analysts predict a new direction for foreign policy.

Incumbent Jacques Chirac of the center-right Gaullist Party and his predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand, concentrated primarily on foreign affairs. They both asserted independence from the United States and did not let rhetoric about the sanctity of international law stop them from doing business with unsavory regimes.

Sarkozy and Royal are likely to break with that tradition, said political analyst Francois Heisbourg.

"The fact that this is a generational change is overriding," Heisbourg said. "They do not feel beholden to the Gaullist-Socialist consensus on foreign policy."

Relations with the United States, which reached a nadir in 2003 when Chirac led opposition to the invasion of Iraq, are expected to improve.

Sarkozy is seen as France's most pro-U.S. presidential candidate in a long time. Barnier, who as Chirac's foreign minister worked to repair the rift over Iraq, predicted that a Sarkozy government would bring a new attitude to trans-Atlantic relations.

"We will have a friendly and frank relationship," Barnier said.

Sarkozy is also regarded as friendlier to Israel and less pro-Palestinian than previous leaders, though he says his Middle East policy will be "balanced."

Royal, meanwhile, does not share the loud anti-Americanism of other French Socialists. But she remains closer "to the footsteps of Mitterrand and Chirac," according to Pascal Boniface, a foreign affairs analyst.

France's aspirations of projecting global power reside largely in its traditional leadership of the European Union. The new president will have to repair the damage done in 2005 when French voters rejected the European Constitution in a referendum. Since then, the EU has drifted and France has lost influence.

The urgent test on the home front is economics. Sarkozy's lead in the polls makes it likely that he will get a chance to execute a plan based on cutting taxes and bureaucracy, encouraging overtime and entrepreneurship, and enacting a Marshall Plan for unemployed youths.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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