French President Jacques Chirac's recent announcement that he will not seek a third term (Spiegel) formally cleared the way for a new generation of French candidates to battle it out in next month's polls. Presidential hopefuls for the two-round election (ElectionGuide.org) must face an “anti-elitist wave” and woo a skeptical electorate, 60 percent of whom doubt the ability (AP) of either the left or the right to govern.
Leading the pack is Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the center-right UMP and current interior minister. He advocates a number of economic modernizations: loosening labor laws, eliminating limits on overtime work, reducing public debt, and trimming the ranks of France's army of civil servants. “France has been discouraging initiative and punishing success for the past 25 years,” he wrote in his book, Testimony. His tough immigration policies and indelicate language during the November 2005 riots may hamper his ability (OpenDemocracy) to earn the trust of France's marginalized ethnic communities, largely of African and North African descent, where voter registration is on the rise (WashPost).
Ségolène Royal, a regional president, defeated a field of iconic veterans to win the nomination of the Socialist Party. She would be France's first woman president. The one hundred policies of her presidential manifesto—informed by nationwide participatory debates and ideas posted to her website—include increases in the minimum wage (TIME), unemployment benefits, and pensions. Royal has been traveling abroad to bolster her foreign policy credentials, but a series of gaffes (ChiTrib) have made some question her presidential stature.
Although the candidates agree on several traditional pillars (ISN) of French foreign policy, their views toward the United States diverge. Nicolas Sarkozy openly expresses deep admiration for American values and has met with President Bush. He emphasizes a strong transatlantic alliance but insists that France will not be an acquiescent partner, citing disagreement on the issue of Turkish membership in the EU. Royal, in contrast, sees greater European integration as a counterweight to American power (Telegraph). Sally McNamara of the Heritage Foundation says “it is highly unlikely there would be a thaw in U.S.-French relations under a Royal presidency.”
A Sarko-Ségo face-off is not assured. François Bayrou, an experienced politician of the centrist UDF party, has capitalized on left-right sniping (WSJ) and cast himself as a compromise candidate who would consider naming a socialist prime minister. Despite criticisms that he's a rightist in disguise and that a coalition government isn't feasible, Bayrou continues to gain ground. Polls for the first round show him just behind—or even with—Royal, and a February 19 poll predicted that he would beat Sarkozy or Royal in a run-off.
France is no stranger to electoral surprise, as when extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front advanced to the second round of the 2002 election. He's running again this year, having cleared the last hurdle of collecting five hundred signatures from French elected officials. Le Pen regularly performs 10 percent better than his pre-vote numbers (Stratfor), which means he may still influence the 2007 contest.