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French Version

What's left and who's right in France?

The surprise in the first round of the French presidential election was that there was no surprise, except for the huge level of voter turnout.

The two leaders of the right and of the left, the favorites in all the polls for a long time, came first and second. Four winners and one clear loser emerged from the first round. The first winner is democracy. For the first time in my lifetime, as I went to vote on Sunday with my children - in a peaceful celebration of that secular religion that is democracy when it works well - I had to wait in line patiently for a relatively long time. For 85 percent of the electorate went to vote in what has been the highest level of participation in presidential elections in France since Charles de Gaulle last ran for president in 1965.

The lesson of the first ballot of 2002, which saw a high level of abstention and the surprise elimination of the Socialist Lionel Jospin, partly explains that mobilization. Also, with the emergence of a new generation of political leaders, the French - who were thought cynical toward politics - seem to have regained their unique passion for it.

The second winner is undeniably and by far Nicolas Sarkozy. With 31 percent of the vote he will come to the second ballot in a very favorable position. His strategy to attract the electorates of Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front proved to be a winning one. A majority of those who voted for him, did it, according to reliable exit poll studies, above all because of his personality. They wanted a strong charismatic man to reawaken France economically and to reassure them in security terms.

The third winner, though she is mathematically in a much less favorable position, is Segolene Royal. Her making it to the second round was a huge relief for the Socialist Party after the Jospin debacle of 2002 - and with more than 25 percent of the votes, she did nearly as well as Francois Mitterrand in 1981.

In order to have a serious chance to win, she has to transform the second ballot into a referendum against Sarkozy. In a classical left-right contest she can only lose. The working class is disappearing in modern France and what's left of it tends to go more to the extreme right than to the extreme left. Segolene Royal has done well, but probably not well enough, unless in a face-to-face debate with Sarkozy she can rally a majority of viewers to the radical modernity of electing a woman to the highest French position. It is not what she says but what she is, or even more so the fear of her opponent that constitute her best chance.

The fourth winner, though his absence from the second ballot is a disappointment for him, is Francois Bayrou. With more than 18 percent of the votes he tripled his score of 2002. He has turned the center into a force. In the second ballot of France's presidential elections, he will prove to be a queen- or more likely a king-maker. His votes are needed by both remaining candidates and it is likely they will tend to split equally between left and right, for he cannot commit himself to clearly support one candidate over the other.

The clear loser in the first round is the leader of the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen. With less than 11 percent of the votes in what will be the last campaign of his career, he turned into an "aging detail of history." In a campaign centered on the emergence of a new generation of political leaders, he lost his appeal. He did not mellow, but was swallowed by history's zeitgeist.

Now a second campaign begins. The key strategic move for the two remaining candidates will be to attract the votes of the center without losing their core leftist or rightist constituencies. That means emphasizing in a reassuring way, economic credibility for Segolene Royal, and social compassion for Nicolas Sarkozy.

The world and Europe in particular will be watching even more intensely this second round. One can nearly detect a kind of "North-South divide," with Southern Europe (mainly Spain and Italy) standing behind Royal, and Northern Europe (predominantly Germany and Britain) - the US as well - aligning themselves behind Sarkozy.

For the European Union, a new man or a woman in the Elysee Palace may be a necessary condition for reinvigorating the European project, but it is not a sufficient condition. The French "no" to the referendum on Europe's constitutional treaty in May 2005 revealed the depth of Europe's crisis, it did not create it. Watching the celebration of patriotism behind the raising of the French flag and the singing of the national anthem during the first round of the campaign, one can believe that the British vision of a Europe of independent nation states has won already, if only by default.

On May 6, the date of the second ballot, French citizens will choose between two risks. The first one, which is potential given Sarkozy's domineering personality, is to have Sarkozy as president. The second risk may prove to be even a bigger one, and can be described as follows. At this particular juncture in time and given the condition of their economy, can the French reject the candidate that incarnates by far the best hope for change and "renaissance?"

To succeed, Sarkozy will have to turn his campaign slogan, "Together everything becomes possible" into reality. That implies successfully integrating French immigrants into the wider community with a combination of economic growth, restoration of the authority of the state, but also and above all a far greater sense of solidarity and fraternity.

Dominique Moisi, a founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), is currently a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (c) (www.project-syndicate.org)

Marseille,05 03 2007
The Daily Star
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