Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal advanced to a runoff in Sunday’s presidential election, presenting France with a fundamental left-right choice between a conservative who could push his anxious nation toward painful change and a socialist who would be the country’s first female leader.
Royal is the first woman to get this close to the helm of this major European economic, military and diplomatic power after a campaign marked by suspense, surprise and unusually dynamic candidates who lured voters to the ballot box in near record numbers.
Sarkozy has the advantage heading into the May 6 runoff. Partial results from the Interior Ministry, with more than 95 percent of votes counted, had Sarkozy leading with 31 percent followed by Royal with 25 percent.
Either way, France will get its first president with no memory of World War II to replace the 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, who is stepping down after 12 years to usher in a new generation of candidates.
Sunday’s first round of voting shut out 10 other hopefuls, from Trotskyists to far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen had hoped to repeat his shockingly strong showing of 2002 but instead finished a weak fourth. Late results gave him 10 percent of the vote.
Both Sarkozy, a Hungarian immigrant’s son, and Royal, a military officer’s daughter who beat Socialist heavyweights to win her party’s nomination, are in their 50s and have traveled long, arduous roads to get to this point.
Serious challenges ahead
The winner’s task will be tough: France is a troubled nation, still haunted by the riots by young blacks and Arabs in poor neighborhoods in 2005.
Decades of stubbornly high unemployment, increasing competition from economies like China’s, and a sense that France is losing influence in the world made this a passionate campaign. Both Royal and Sarkozy have promised to get France back on its feet — but offer starkly different paths for doing that.
Sarkozy would loosen labor laws and cut taxes to invigorate the sluggish economy, while Royal would hike government spending and preserve the country’s generous worker protections.
Royal, too, champions change but says it must not be brutal.
“I extend my hand to all those women and men who think, as I do, that it is not only possible but urgent to abandon a system that no longer works,” she said.
The runoff offers “a clear choice between two very different paths,” she said.
Outside Socialist Party headquarters in Paris, supporters reacted to the result with joy, chanting, “We’re going to win!”
Sarkozy told cheering supporters Sunday night that by choosing him and Royal, voters “clearly marked their wish to go to the very end of the debate between two ideas of the nation, two programs for society, two value systems, two concepts of politics.”
Despite Sarkozy’s lead, he faces a powerful “Anything But Sarkozy” push by those who call him too arrogant and explosive to run a nuclear-armed nation. He once called young delinquents “scum,” a remark that outraged the residents of poor neighborhoods and has dogged him politically.
“It won’t be a walk in the park” for Sarkozy even though he is in a strong position heading into the runoff, said Bruno Cautres, researcher at the prestigious Institute for Political Sciences.
Royal, a lawmaker and feminist who says she makes political decisions based on what she would do for her children, shot to popularity by promising to run France differently.
But she has stumbled on foreign policy. In one gaffe, she praised the Chinese during a trip to Beijing for their swift justice system.
Many voters question whether she is “presidential” enough to run France.
Turnout was nearing the record of 84.8 percent for a first round, set in 1965. That year modern France held its first direct presidential election, with World War II Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Socialist Francois Mitterrand reaching the runoff that de Gaulle went on to win.
Scramble for the middle
For Royal and Sarkozy, a scramble is now on for voters in the middle ground and others who deserted the left and right in favor of farmer’s son and lawmaker Francois Bayrou, one of the big surprises of the campaign.
He placed third on Sunday, with 18 percent, according to the partial results.
In the runoff, Sarkozy should be able to count on votes from the far right, whose champion Le Pen suffered his second-worst showing in five presidential elections. Partial results had him at 11 percent.
Royal’s score was the highest for a Socialist since Mitterrand in 1988. But she could struggle to make up the gap with Sarkozy in round two. Candidates to her left together scored about 11 percent. They immediately swung behind her after their elimination, but their votes alone will not be enough to put Royal in power.
Some voters won't get fooled again
Many voters were determined to avoid a repeat of the shame that they felt in 2002, when a record low turnout helped Le Pen, an extreme-right nationalist with repeat convictions for anti-Semitic and racist comments, slip through into the runoff. Even voters on the left rallied around the conservative Chirac to keep Le Pen from power in that vote, and he was trounced.
“If the French people didn’t learn the lesson from last time, then we really are jerks,” said Corinne Keuter, a 46-year-old secretary who lined up for a half-hour to cast her ballot for Royal in northwest Paris.
Whatever the outcome, “I think this election is going to change things for the better,” she said. “In 2002, people didn’t seem to care.”
A visibly dejected Le Pen, who accuses both the left and right of leading France to the edge of ruin, reacted to the result with sarcasm.
“I thought the French were rather unhappy. ... I was mistaken,” he said. “The French are very content. The proof is that they have just re-elected the parties that were in power and that are responsible for the situation of France.”