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.