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Special Reports Last Updated: Mar 13th, 2007 - 01:26:16

The French presidential election -- Part 2 of 3: The candidates
By Jeffrey S. Victor, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 13, 2007, 01:24

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In what country are there currently two official candidates for the presidency, both aiming to be the first of their kind to win the highest office in their country; one who is an ambitious son of an immigrant father with a foreign sounding name, and another who is an ambitious woman and mother? No, it is not in the United States. It is in France. I will introduce you to the major candidates for the presidency of France and their foreign policies that are of interest to Americans.

The son of an immigrant father is Nicolas Sarkozy, popularly called �Sarko.� He is the candidate of the center-right UMP Party. The most interesting thing about �Sarko� for Americans is that he is an admirer of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and his political attitudes and personal demeanor are much like those of Giuliani.

Sarkozy�s father immigrated to France from Hungary just after the Second World War II to escape the Communist government, because of the father�s aristocratic family background. His mother is French. However, his father left his mother when Sarkozy was a child, and his family had to be supported financially by his maternal grandfather. Sarkozy does not hide the fact that he hates his father and that he had to overcome financial difficulties by hard work. Sarkozy worked his way through a non-elite university (Nanterre) and eventually became a lawyer, specializing in business law.

Sarkozy�s public image is again much like that of Giuliani; being that of a competent �tough guy.� He is a very skilled politician, an excellent speaker and very combative with journalists who ask him hardball questions. He is often called �Sarko� the power hose (as in power washer), because of some of his comments about how to deal with violent youth. In the fall of 2005, when teenagers were rioting and burning cars in the poor suburbs of some large French cities, Sarkozy labeled them scum, dregs and hoodlums. Many of his critics regard him as a racist, because many of the rioting youth where from Arab North African and Black African families. Although Sarkozy may not be a racist, he has little sympathy for people who act their frustrations in indolence or crime, rather than seeking work -- even though France has a high rate of unemployment (about 9 percent).

Sarkozy has acquired extensive political experience. He was first elected deputy (representative) to the National Assembly in 1988. In center�right governments, he has been minister of the Budget (like the Office of Budget and Management); minister of Finance (economic planning) and is currently minister of the Interior (national police and intelligence services) in President Chirac�s government. He was also elected head of the UMP Party in 2004.

Sarkozy speaks a lot about foreign policy, in part, because it highlights the weakness of the other two major candidates and because he knows his stuff. �Sarko� is more pro-American than any other candidate, but he makes it clear that a solid alliance does not mean subservience. His possible election is likely to benefit Americans, but not the Bush government. �Sarko� traveled to the U.S. last September and lavished praise on the country. He even noted that he has relatives in the U.S., from the Hungarian side of his family. Nevertheless, he has called the war in Iraq �an historic mistake� and praised President Chirac for keeping France out of the war. Sarkozy agrees with Bush�s opinion that �the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons is unacceptable.� But, he rules out any military attack on Iran as being dangerously counter-productive.

Sarkozy is very different from American conservatives, because he supports government intervention in the economy. This economic philosophy, supported by both left and right in French society, has a long tradition going back centuries to the time of the monarchy. (The French have a word for it, �dirigisme,� loosely meaning giving direction. In contrast, government �laissez-faire,� or hands off, is a distinctly American economic philosophy.) Sarkozy agrees with President Chirac, who has recently written in his book that the ideology of pure free market and free trade (called �liberalism� in France) is doomed to fail, much like Communism.

Sarkozy has announced some foreign policy positions that are likely to provoke a bit of irritation in Washington. He supports the development of a European military force (from the E.U. countries), independent of NATO and he wants France to build a second aircraft carrier. He also announced that he is opposed to Turkey being accepted into the European Union. All of these positions are contrary to those preferred by the Bush administration.

Finally, another foreign policy position taken by Sarkozy, contrary to those of Bush is that Sarkozy wants to reduce the value of the euro currency relative to the dollar. This would help European Union exports, such as those of the currently troubled Airbus Company, which builds passenger jets. It would be pleasing to American tourists in Europe and to American consumers who purchase products from the E.U. But, of course, it would make American products more expensive to export, such as the passenger jets built by Boeing which competes with Airbus.

Segolene Royal, the candidate from the Socialist Party, offers a sharp contrast with the hard-boiled, intensive Sarkozy. She expresses soft-spoken self-confidence and appears to exude compassion, albeit quite deliberately. She is a proud, self-professed feminist, but very different from Hillary Clinton, who must deny being a feminist to placate traditionalist Americans. In addition, Mme. Royal takes full political advantage of the fact that she is the mother of four children. (In the United States, this fact would create a problem with right-wing Christians, because Mme. Royal never married her life-partner, Francois Hollande, who happens to be head of the French Socialist party. Moreover, Hollande once sought to become the presidential candidate of the party, but deferred to his mate.

Mme. Royal was born into a very poor family of eight children, whose father was a low-level army officer. Young Segolene had to overcome many obstacles to a political career, because her reactionary father opposed any academic education for girls. Nevertheless, she persisted against his will and was able to gain entry to two of the most prestigious and intellectually demanding universities in France, the Institute for Political Studies (�Sciences Po�), and the graduate school, National School of Administration (ENA). Her training is in public administration (from ENA), which forms the background of many in the French political elite.

Segolene Royal has had considerable political experience. She was first elected a deputy to the National Assembly in 1988 and has served there, on and off, until the present. She has also served in Socialist governments as vice-minister of the Environment, vice-minister of Education and vice-minister of Family and Childhood. Mme. Royal has tended to campaign on family and social welfare issues, rather than on issues of financial management and foreign policy.

Segolene Royal has a public image as a �lightweight,� lacking knowledge in matters of foreign policy. She has said very little about her proposed foreign policies. She has contributed to this unfortunate public image by making numerous faux pas in speaking about foreign policy issues. For example, in January, in a meeting with the head of the Parti Quebecois, she stated that she supported the sovereignty of Quebec and the Parti Quebecois� desire for Quebec to secede from Canada. Her statement, of course, set off a firestorm of criticism claiming that she was na�ve in matters of foreign affairs. She compounded her problem while on a trip to China, in a misguided attempt to flatter her Chinese hosts, when she complimented the Chinese for their quick system of justice, compared with that of France. (Her opponents were quick to point out that China executes over 10,000 prisoners a year; while capital punishment is prohibited in France.)

In terms of military issues, Mme. Royal opposes the construction of another aircraft carrier, and said that the money would better be used to improve education and scientific research in France.

Most of Mme. Royal�s positions on foreign policy are simply matters of shear speculation. On the other side of the Atlantic, it is likely that the conservative Bush government would be even more unhappy with a Socialist government in power in France than they are with their old nemesis Jacques Chirac. In the past, the Socialists have been very critical of American economic policies and American popular culture (especially violence in the movies).

At this point in early March, Royal and Sarkozy are running neck and neck in the public opinion polls, as if this were a two-way race. However, a third candidate is fast on their heels, and might even replace one of them on the first ballot, as one of the two highest vote getters.

Francois Bayrou has emerged as a possible choice for voters who dislike the candidates of both major political parties. He is a kind of protest candidate. Whether Bayrou can play the role of �spoiler� in this election, as Le Pen did in the election of 2002, is still to be seen. (Le Pen is very unlikely to be a significant player in this election.) At this point, Bayrou is mainly attracting voters away from Mme. Royal, which would help Sarkozy.

Bayrou is an attractive candidate because he has a reputation for speaking his mind frankly, without relying upon advisors. Bayrou also has an unusual background for a presidential candidate. He obtained a doctorate in Classics from the University of Bordeaux (a school that does not train the elite in France) and then taught French, Latin and Greek in an academic high school (lyc�e). He is also the respected author of a best selling book about King Henry IV of France. In addition, after his father died, he managed his family�s race horse farm. The background of Bayrou is very different from the kind of person who reaches for the American presidency. The only comparable American that I can think of was Eugene McCarthy, in 1968.

Bayrou has acquired a reasonable amount of political experience. He has been a member of the European Parliament, minister of Education in center-right governments and elected head of the centrist UDF Party. Bayrou has been seeking the presidency since the election of 2002, in which he placed a distant fourth on the first ballot (at only about 7 percent).

Bayrou�s public image in France is that he is neither right nor left, as he himself says, but that he is also vague and undecided about major issues. Bayrou�s main theme is that all political action in France is blocked by the rivalry between the two major parties, the right and the left. He advocates that he will put together a government of people from the right and left who can deal with practical problems.

Concerning relations with the United States, Bayrou says that he seeks the �third way,� like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, whom he says he admires. (Gore happens to be very popular in France, in part, because many people have seen his movie about global warming, which the French take very seriously.) Bayrou has relatives in the United States living in Des Moines, Iowa, whom he has often visited. Although he may be knowledgeable about American life, he is critical of what he calls the American �survival of the fittest� economic model, the excessive cost of a college education and the financial stress on middle class families.

Bayrou speaks almost entirely about domestic concerns and says very little at all about foreign relations. He is well aware that most French people, like most Americans, have little interest in foreign affairs; and he knows also, that those issues are not his expertise. So, he focuses especially on issues dealing with making education more effective and ways of helping poor youth to find employment. However, he does advocate strengthening the European Union and reforming its bureaucracy, to make it more effective and more responsive to the people of the E.U.

I would guess that Francois Bayrou will become the �darling� of the conservative American media, because he is less scary for them than the economic nationalist, Sarko, and the leftist Socialist, Mme. Royal. In the current opinion polls, Bayrou is obtaining about 20 percent of the possible vote, compared with about 26-28 percent for Sarkozy and 24-25 percent for Mme. Royal. So, Bayrou is in striking distance of coming in second place on the first ballot on April 22.

Part 3 will deal with domestic policies related to similar social problems in the U.S , such as illegal immigration, youth violence and declining educational achievement.

Jeffrey Victor is a sociologist who lives in France during the winter months, with his wife who is a French citizen. Responses are welcome at

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