PARIS – It’s been a presidential campaign unlike any France has seen, with rioting youth, a bikini-clad candidate and a national identity crisis, with many scattershot proposals but no central theme to unite the French.
Today, it comes down to the 40 percent of voters who are keeping the nation guessing until the last minute of a captivating campaign with stakes for all of Europe. Voters narrow a field of 12 to two favorites who reach the runoff May 6, and only conservative, pro-American Nicolas Sarkozy seems certain to make that cut.
Polls suggest Sarkozy’s challenger will be Socialist Segolene Royal, an unconventional leftist determined to be the first woman in France’s top job.
But polls have proven wrong before, and with millions vacillating, lawmaker and horse-breeder Francois Bayrou – who has been poaching voters from left and right – may leap ahead to be today’s surprise.
Another option looms: extreme-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, ready to repeat his shock second-place finish in 2002’s first round. That result deeply disturbed France and pushed voters to crush Le Pen by a record margin in the runoff and re-elect Jacques Chirac.
Chirac is not running this time and leaves behind a nation looking for new direction, down on its economic fortunes, and still coping with fallout from youth riots in poor, immigrant areas in 2005.
The presidential contenders are still trying to fathom what voters want and have seemed ready to do anything to court the fringes or the middle – or the opposite camp.
Sarkozy once sounded like a determined free-market reformer, ready to shake France up from top to bottom. But in recent months he tempered his talk about a “rupture” with the past and has watered down tax-cut plans. A lifelong anti-communist and son of a Hungarian immigrant, he even quoted a Marxist philosopher.
Royal once offended leftists by suggesting boot camp for wayward youth, then appeased them with a traditionally Socialist economic platform heavy on government programs. She reached to the patriotic right by calling for a French flag in every home. Then she gave an interview to Rottweiler News.
Sarkozy and Royal are both in their 50s, carry iPods and appeal to young voters in Internet campaigns. Both infiltrated the political system from the outside – Royal as a woman, Sarkozy as the son of a Hungarian immigrant.
Sarkozy has made a career out of striving for the presidency. If he loses, it will be at the hands of a powerful “Anything But Sarkozy” push by those on the left angry at his tough line on youth crime and immigration.
Royal, meanwhile, floated the idea of a presidential bid just 16 months ago and skyrocketed to popularity. Often referring to her four children, she struck a chord with voters tired of politics by paternalistic men from elite schools, and through a monthslong “listening campaign” across the country.
Voters are confused – yet more excited by politics than in years.
Voter registration is up, especially in some of the gritty suburbs that ring picturesque French cities. Riots raged in 2005 in these poor neighborhoods where mostly Muslim immigrants and their French-born children live in forgotten housing projects, and up to half the youth are jobless.
Across the country, jobs are voters’ No. 1 concern, polls show. Recognizing that, the top candidates reached out to Airbus workers facing massive job cuts and railed against exorbitant executive pay.
But the campaign focus never stayed on jobs, instead switching to school choice, trashing the European Central Bank and taxing the rich, then to cracking down on youth rampaging in a Paris train station.
In recent weeks, the most enduring campaign theme was French identity.
Sarkozy proposed a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, which critics said smacked of Nazi-style racism and was a nod to Le Pen’s anti-immigrant electorate. Royal’s flag-waving call sparked extended debate in the media over what it means to be French.
That, in turn, renewed French gloom over its shrinking role in the world and the world economy.
France’s relations with the world played only a minor role in the campaign. Sarkozy’s handshake with President Bush in Washington in September was a highlight – or low light – to many French skeptics of U.S. power. Royal’s aides were eager to forget her foreign policy gaffes, from China to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Royal made gender central to the campaign, in which a third of the 12 candidates are women.
The Internet was another star, with candidates running several Web sites apiece. Royal and Le Pen opened offices on the online game Second Life.
Tabloids published photos of the fit, 53-year-old Royal in a bikini. Ponderous speeches shared space with gimmicks like condoms stamped with Sarkozy’s UMP party logo, handed out on Riviera beaches. Writer Alain Duhamel called the campaign a “game show.”
On the campaign’s margins, candidate Jose Bove risks prison for destroying fields of genetically modified corn, Trotskyist Arlette Laguiller preaches a dictatorship of the proletariat and far-right leader Philippe de Villiers says Muslims are taking over France.
They will garner minimal support but could upset the balance among the top candidates in the first round. The runoff will be the more serious affair, when the stakes for France, and the Europe it helped unite, take center stage.
Sarkozy wrapped up his campaign on horseback, in a red-checkered shirt, during a low-key stop in the Camargue region of southeast France on Friday.
He said he hadn’t mounted a horse in 10 or 15 years, but he climbed on easily. “I have concentrated hard enough not to make mistakes,” he said.
Royal, meanwhile, had a glass of rose in a Paris sidewalk cafe. She said she “enjoyed conducting this campaign, despite the unpredictable moments, the challenges, the difficulties.”
Voters in France’s far-flung overseas territories started casting ballots Saturday.