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Sego or Sarko? It's a Left-Right Duel
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Run-off expected to focus more on economic reforms than personality politics.

Socialist Segolene Royal and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy have two weeks to sell voters on two vastly different visions for France at a time when its people are nervous about retaining their prosperity and carving out a viable identity in a rapidly changing world.

Either would be the first French president not to have lived through World War II, a significant generational shift but the similarities end there.

Royal would bring a breezy elegance to the Elysee. She has openly appealed to women voters and says her election as the first French woman president would have no less than "planetary" consequences. On campaign posters the feminine "e" has optimistically been added so as to read "presidente."

Sarkozy cuts a perhaps less graceful figure, turning off some with naked ambition and sometimes ungainly campaigning. That could cost him in the race for the job once held by Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand, bestowing on its holder the status of standard-bearer and symbol of all that may be right or wrong with France.

The campaign to date has veered off in directions dictated by the personality politics and tactical calculations of the first round. The run-off may offer a clearer debate on the economic reforms that many see as the key to France's future.

Although Royal is from the opposition Socialists, it is Sarkozy, the candidate of Jacques Chirac's party who more strongly champions a break with the past, summing up his views with a word that means the same in French as in other languages: "rupture."

Sarkozy wants to free up labor markets and appears willing to scrap some of the social protections that the French prize. He calls France's 35-hour work week "an absurdity," wants to make overtime pay tax-free to encourage people to work more, and proposes loosening labor laws to encourage hiring. Work creates wealth that creates jobs, he says.

He generally betrays none of Chirac's disdain for "Anglo-American liberalism," code for a cut-throat capitalism that the French would like to avoid even as they strive to become more globally competitive. But he's no unbridled free-marketer and also has shown a protectionist streak.

Sarkozy seems disinterested in Chirac's view of France as a philosophical and political counterweight to the global hegemony of the United States. He is comfortable with America in a way that Royal has not to date tried to match, and probably could not.

Royal, by comparison, would scrap a relatively timid job reform that made hiring and firing easier for small firms. She argues that public spending on job programs and raising the minimum wage will breathe life into the laggard economy. But she's a pragmatic rather than a dogmatic Socialist, and says the 35-hour work week has had both benefits and drawbacks that she wants to work out.

Business leaders and others who believe that France must reform to avoid economic decline relative to Asia and America both will prefer Sarkozy. People worried about their jobs and many minority voters rattled by Sarkozy's tough views on immigration and crime may opt for Royal.

The crowded field in the first round rendered polls difficult to read. Sarkozy has generally been seen as the front-runner, but the race now is clearly for the center the political space that Francois Bayrou tapped well enough to briefly turn the election into a three-way race.

In the end, May 6 could be an unpopularity contest. Both "Sego" and "Sarko" leave sections of the electorate cold - Royal because she's seen by some to be too inexperienced and gaffe-prone to run a nuclear nation; Sarkozy because he's regarded as a bully who might trample on civil liberties. Both will try to dispel those notions in the days ahead.

(China Daily via agencies April 24, 2007)

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