French presidential race takes shape, but disillusion is profound
PARIS – Barring a giant upset, French voters now know the choice they will likely face next year will be between Socialist Segolene Royal – photogenic, but vague on specifics – and the fiery Nicolas Sarkozy, who offers more concrete and politically risky plans to free up the economy.Polls show support split between the two. A major challenge for both will be winning back the trust of voters deeply disillusioned with France’s political elite – long seen as ossified and arrogant.Royal’s quest to become France’s first woman president got off to a running start Thursday when she decisively won an unprecedented primary vote, beating two male rivals from the Socialist old guard.On the mainstream right, Sarkozy’s candidacy has long seemed assured. The governing UMP party that he heads is widely expected to anoint him as its candidate at a congress Jan. 14.Sarkozy says his passion for politics took root as a teen. Vocally pro-American, a free market advocate and unabashedly frank, he has wide experience in top government posts but is loathed by the left and by many youths of immigrant backgrounds who bristle at his tough-on-crime language and policies. Sarkozy, 51, angered many last year by labeling delinquent youths as “scum.”Politically, he says France needs a clean break or “rupture” with its past, language critics say suggests violent, enforced change.He has been critical of France’s 35-hour work week – sacrosanct for Socialists but maligned by business – and says that those who want to work longer must be able to do so. He also says the French economic system, with its costly worker protections and social benefits, cannot provide enough jobs.Royal, by contrast, came out of the blue in a country where women traditionally have not had access to the top rungs of power. She first publicly floated the idea of a presidential bid late last year – although polls as long ago as 2004 showed she had strong public support.She has defied easy categorization – not least because she has dribbled out her ideas cautiously, an apparent effort not to unsettle voter polls showing her as the left’s best candidate to face Sarkozy.Her mantra is that she will listen to and do what French voters want – a clear and apparently successful effort to reach out to those tired of politics run by paternalistic men from elite schools.”The world has changed, France has changed. So politics must change. I want not only to embody this deep change, but to build it with you,” she said in a speech Friday.”The French are ready for reforms. But they don’t want to have to consent to decisions that are imposed on them, without taking part in them.”Among her most contentious proposals are military supervision for juvenile delinquents and more direct citizens’ oversight of elected officials.She also has worried many Socialists by suggesting that the 35-hour work week cannot be universally applied. One of her major challenges will be rallying the divided French left. Critics on the extreme-left in particular say she is too free market, likening her to Britain’s Tony Blair.Royal, 53, has been a junior government minister three times, holding the environment, schools and family portfolios in intermittent Socialist governments since 1992. Critics say she lacks the gravitas and experience in foreign affairs to hold the presidency.But she has grassroots appeal. As a minister, she was known for stern discipline with campaigns against thongs in classrooms and violence on TV. She also championed paternity leave and the morning-after pill for teens.In some ways, both are outsiders: Royal as a woman, and Sarkozy as the lawyer son of a Hungarian immigrant father who – unlike Royal – did not attend the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for the French political elite.In contrast to 73-year-old President Jacques Chirac, who is refusing to say whether he will run again, they appear fresh and dynamic, attributes that could help win back some voters who have turned their back on politics or veered to extreme candidates on the left and right in protest.Although French voters re-elected Chirac and his Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand, they have shown their displeasure by ditching the party in power in every single legislative election since 1981.Polls show that most trust neither the left or the right to run the country. Such disillusion played into the hands of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the last presidential vote in 2002. He stunned France and Europe by making it into the runoff against Chirac, beating out the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.Le Pen has already announced his candidacy for next year.