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Three weeks from the first round of voting in the French presidential election, interest at home and abroad is at an all-time high. France still carries exceptional weight in Europe and plays a pivotal role in major international conflictsnot always for good. French diplomacy was instrumental in a resolution of last summers Hezbollah war, which shifted the balance of power in Irans favor; France argued convincingly for resumption of normal relations between the EU and the Palestinian Authoritys Hamas-Fatah coalition; France is undermining UN sanctions against Mahmoud Ahmadinejads nuclear-hungry Iran. And France, with Europes largest Muslim population, is struggling with a demographic situation that has far-reaching domestic and international implications, another reason for Americans to be concerned about the outcome of the election.
In the polls, Nicolas Sarkozy (of the currently governing right wing UMPUnion for a Popular Movement) has consistently led Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal over the past two months. Centrist François Bayrou (of the UDF, or Union for French Democracy) soared from 8 percent of the electorate at the start of his campaign to a summit of 23 percent before falling back and stagnating in third place. The March 2122 Sofres Poll of first-round voter intentions gives Bayrou 21.5 percent, Royal 26.5 percent, and Sarkozy 28 percent. What is behind these figures?
Ségolène Royals campaign is a flop. She is an embarrassment to the Socialist Party machine, a disappointment to the rank and file, a heartbreak for the left-wing media that would have loved to love her. Royal is a caricature of la femme française: charming, attractive, self-centered, narcissistic, manipulative, and capricious. Incapable of giving a straight answer to a simple question, she takes off like a wind-up doll and recites endless platitudes. Though her rudderless platform wobbles precariously on the high seas of the presidential race, one gets the impression that if she is elected, all professionsfrom CEOs to academics to policemenwill serve as social workers, catering to the suffering masses from the cradle to the grave.
Disappointment in Royal largely explains the unlikely popularity of François Bayrou, a lonesome cowboy. He avoids going into detail about his program because it would undercut his basic argument: French voters are tired of this sterile conflict between the right and the left. Any significant measure he might propose would bear traces of rightness and leftness; any politician who might stand by his side would necessarily come from the right or the left; and the majority that, he promises, will magically materialize to govern with him after the June legislative election would have to come from the right and the left. Precedents for the nonpartisan government that hes marketing include the ungovernable Fourth Republic in postwar France and the fragile coalition headed by Romano Prodi in todays Italy. As Bayrous polls rose, the media flocked to him, mechanically increasing his popularity. He will most likely see-saw with Royal in the coming weeks, as anti-Sarkozy voters try to figure out which of them might beat the only candidate with presidential stature and an intelligently elaborated program.
As for the issues, the media has tried to push economic problems to the forefront, but the campaign walks in the shadow of Iranian nuclear ambitions and steps gingerly over the burning coals of the 2005 uprising of mostly Muslim youths in the banlieuesthose housing projects on the outskirts of French towns and cities where a large, concentrated Arab-Muslim-African population is often left to the mercy of its worst elements. For three weeks there was mayhem, millions of dollars worth of damage, violent revolt against law and order. And the intervening time has been far from calm. The revolt didnt end; the same forces have been savagely ambushing the police, burning buses (with passengers inside), carrying out violence against Jews (including the torture-murder of Ilan Halimi), attacking schoolteachers and hospital personnel, and performing everyday vandalism and car-torching.
Opinion-makers, and most of the presidential candidates, delicately repositioned this offensive against French society into a cry for social justice demanding appropriate corrective measures. In fact, France is not an equal opportunity societynot for its own citizens, not for immigrants. It will require extraordinary leadership to transform this society of little princes with their courts and privileges into a modern society of merit and professionalism. Arabs, Muslims, and blacks, whether recent immigrants or fourth-generation French, do suffer from discrimination. But other factors are involved: a significant portion of that population is ill-equipped to study and work in an advanced technological society, and France does suffer from the ills and perils of Eurabia, including a domestic al-Qaeda network.
How does this pressure from the banlieues influence party platforms? Royal and Bayrou cant get enough of the banlieues. Bayrou never misses a United Colors of Benettonstyle photo op. Royal actually signed a Social Contract, drafted by the radical association Aclefeu, that would reduce French citizens to dhimmitude. In twelve single-spaced pages, the contract sets forth the terms of their submission to a religious-ethnic minority self-defined as victims of injustice. Royals allegiance to this platformwhich would impose residence permits for all illegals, radical redistribution of wealth, revision of history, and a change in negative attitudes toward women in hijab and guys dressed like hoodlumsprovoked no public reaction. However, when Sarkozy announced his intention to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, all hell broke loose. How dare he mention immigration in the same breath as national identityas if the former were threatening the latter! Leftists, intellectuals, journalists, immigrants, and most of Sarkozys rivals (seven out of the 12 candidates are on the left) accused him of racism, fascism, Nazism, Le Penism, and hankerings for ethnic cleansing. Royal warned that if Sarkozy won, the banlieues would explode ten times more violently than they did in 2005.
But the polls showed 56 percent approval for Sarkozys proposed ministry, which would effectively make respect for French national identity a prerequisite for immigration. Ten days later, Ségolène Royal began talking up national identity, ending her rallies with La Marseillaise, and recommending that every French home fly the tricolor flag.
Foreign policy, meanwhile, is mostly absent from opinion polls and media coverage of the campaign. Royal dropped the subject after making high-profile, low-yield foreign junkets to the Middle East and China. Bayrou would outsource Frances foreign and defense policy to the EUtotally unfeasible, considering the present state of the Union, but nothing can undermine his confidence that European diplomacy can soothe a troubled world with the cure-alls of dialogue and compromise. (Bayrou has only one good word to say for current president Jacques Chirac: he opposed the war in Iraq.)
Though Sarkozy, under pressure from his party, has watered down his positions on specific issues, he makes no secret of his intention to make a clean break with Chiracs system of conducting foreign relations as an extension of his personal social agenda. True to his promise to inform citizens and parliamentarians on the issues and invite them to participate in the debate, Sarkozy held a press conference on foreign relations. The media attended, but barely bothered to tell the public about it. And they didnt even mention the richly informative day-long conference on defense that one of Sarkozys close advisors, Pierre Lellouche, organized for the UMP. Highly qualified speakers identified the clear and present danger from without and within, the interaction between global jihad and banlieue uprisings, the imminence of an Iranian nuclear threat, the rise of al Qaeda, the painful inadequacies of European defensesubjects that the French media apparently preferred to downplay.
But Irans abduction of 15 British sailors off the coast of Iraq, and the March 27 riots at the Gare du Nord in Paris, have forced the hidden issues into the center of the presidential debate. We are facing an acid test for French democracy, a case study for Europe in crisis, and a decisive moment for the Atlantic alliance. What kind of an ally will the United States find when it wakes up on May 7?
Poller is an American writer living in Paris since 1972.