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France at a Crossroad

May 2, 2007

Left or right? Woman or man? Ségolène or Sarkozy?  These are the choices facing French voters when they take to the polls for the second and final round of the presidential election on Sunday, May 6. An unprecedented 85% of those eligible turned out for the first round. The numbers indicate just how vital voters believe this election is to France’s future. The nation is facing difficult challenges, and the French people know it. If Ségolène Royal succeeds as the face that represents a new France, she will have convinced voters that she can forge a link between a generation of French citizens rejected for their immigrant roots and the very society that has marginalized them. Voters will have trusted her to find a solution to chronic unemployment and make the job market less hostile to young people like myself. They will have chosen her to guide France within the international community, particularly the European Union. France was a pivotal player in the EU’s creation, shortly after the Second World War. However, as Europe continues to expand both geographically and politically, it remains to be seen where France fits in. Or voters may decide that these and other complex challenges would be better handled by her opponent—seen by his supporters as a man that gets things done. Nicolas Sarkozy, the undisputed frontrunner, is brash, aggressive and some would argue far too impulsive. He appeals to some, and scares the living daylights out of others, who regard him as little better than National Front founder Jean Marie Le Pen, the right-wing extremist who failed to make the runoff. At the start, not many people believed Royal had the political wherewithal to challenge Sarkozy. As a candidate, she didn’t start off with the credibility of a Hillary Clinton or Germany’s Angela Merkel. Established members of her Socialist Party, the so-called elephants, vocally expressed their doubts. Even her long time partner, party chairman Francois Hollande, did not immediately jump to her defense. Nevertheless, her presence in the second round suggests that she has touched a chord with the French people. Many are willing to give her a chance, especially now that she has the advantage of being the only alternative left to Sarkozy. Royal has overridden obstacles by shifting the nature of French politics away from its traditional focus on issues and ideology. This second round will be more about the character of the candidates.  Royal and her camp are doing everything they can to convince the French people that Sarkozy is not to be trusted. Personality politics are more the norm in the United States than they are in Europe, and when you consider the sort of political persona that Royal has adopted, it is not hard to imagine that she might have done well with American voters—if she could convince them to take her seriously as a candidate and leader. Where Hillary Clinton has been criticized for being cold and remote, Royal is widely seen as personable and accessible. Compared to Clinton’s tailored pants suits, Royal’s dress accentuates her femininity. She does not shy away from discussing her relationship with Hollande or the four children they have together, when the occasion warrants. In a subtle way, she presents herself as a woman who happens to be a politician rather than a politician who happens to be a woman. If I were to lay odds on what will happen Sunday, I am not convinced that Royal will win and become France’s first female president.  French society may have shifted too far to the right and could remain too much of a patriarchy to handle Socialist Ségolène. Whether she wins or loses, however, she will have accomplished something vital for little girls who grow up and dream of becoming presidents or prime ministers or secretaries general. She will leave them with an impression, maybe just the whisper of an idea, that women do not have to shed their sexuality to succeed in an arena dominated by men.