French voters have set up a race worth watching for one of the highest-profile presidencies on the planet. A pair of relatively young and dynamic candidates, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal, led Sunday’s first-round voting and will face one another in a May 6 run-off vote that is expected to draw an extremely high turnout.

Sarkozy goes into the run-off race ahead. But serious observers of the French political landscape caution against counting Royal, whose slow-starting campaign surged in the final days before Sunday’s vote, out in a clash of ideological and personal contrasts.

Though Sarkozy is a good deal more liberal than many American Democrats, he is by European standards a man of the right. And Royal, the first woman to make it into a second-round race for the French presidency, is anything but a radical.

But their contest will be a classic fight between the right and left in a country that remains the counterpoint to the United States on a host of foreign-policy issues — not least the future of the Middle East, where the French government of outgoing conservative President Jacques Chirac has led international opposition to the military adventurism of the Bush’s administration.

While he has the grudging support of Chirac, Sarkozy is far more rhetorically friendly to the U.S. than most prominent French politicians. Speaking last year at the French Embassy in Washington, he offered the reassurance that, “You Americans were struck in the heart on September 11, 2001, and never understood our opposition to the intervention in Iraq. Some of you, to call a spade a spade, even felt it as a form of betrayal.”

Royal, while hardly anti-American, does call “a spade a spade” when speaking of the world’s least popular leader.

Addressing 15,000 supporters in Toulouse last week, Royal declared, “We will not go down on our knees before George Bush.”

Ultimately, however, the French race will be decided on domestic issues — with Sarkozy and Royal battling for the votes of centrists torn between the conservative’s promise of corporation-friendly free-market economic reforms and the Socialist’s promise that “human values will triumph.”

There is no question that U.S. media owes Americans serious coverage of a critical contest for the presidency of this country’s oldest international ally — indeed, the country that has a history of caring enough about the U.S. to tell its leaders when they are wrong.

But that attention ought not be limited to the specifics of the Sarkozy-Royal competition.

In America, where turnout even for intense presidential elections is exceptionally low by international standards, and where there is a growing restlessness about the claustrophobic impact of archaic state election systems and the Electoral College on our democracy, there is something to be learned from the French process.

By holding elections on a two-stage schedule, France avoids many of the pitfalls of the American system. France has its Ross Perots, Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans, and they run for the presidency. Indeed, they are given a far fairer share of attention by the media than they get in the United States. As such, the boundaries of French politics are broader, the messages of campaigns more adventurous and exciting. Perhaps that is why turnout Sunday was 85 percent.

Rarely do ideologically or personally extreme candidates make it through the first round. And, when they do, they are obliterated in the second round, as was nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. That creates a politics that, at its best, emphasizes both the power of ideas and the importance of coalition building.

The French system, with its two candidate run-off, assures that presidents are elected with a majority of the vote — unlike Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, when Perot’s independent candidacies pulled enough votes to prevent anyone from gaining a majority, and George Bush in 2000, when Nader’s Green candidacy secured enough support in key states to be portrayed as warping the Electoral College result against the winner of the popular vote, Al Gore. [In fairness, the Supreme Court did more to warp the result, when it stopped the Florida recount. But in France, the fight never would have gotten to the Bush-friendly court.]

The point here is not to suggest that the French system is necessarily better in every sense than the American system. Rather, the point is that there are other ways to elect presidents — and that Americans, as ponder reforms at home, might learn a little from the country that, with its support of our revolution against British colonialism, midwifed the United States into being.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”