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RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov, 7 May 2007

Paris has been wallpapered with posters of presidential candidates, which was to be

But almost every portrait has gouged eyes and slashed mouths; some posters are
scratched or torn down. My French friends have never seen this before.

The last, the second round of the presidential race will take place on May 6.
Political heat in France has reached its peak. It has probably not experienced such
emotions in the past 30 years or so.

This is only natural because France is on the horns of a dilemma. The two candidates
are poles apart - a man who leads the ruling party professing classical liberal
views in politics and the economy, and a woman Socialist with unshakeable faith in
the state as a cure-all.

He is a short man, and is often compared to Napoleon. He is power-hungry,
short-tempered and even aggressive, which is considered his weakness. Sweating
profusely during public appearances he never uses a handkerchief to avoid
unflattering pictures. A son of a Hungarian immigrant, he crushed down on the
suburbs of Paris in 2005 to clear them of what he called "scum." The locals are not
likely to forget and forgive.

She is a charming woman reminiscent of Madonna. In fact, she might be playing on the
likeness. She prefers to dress in white; during public speeches she opens her arms
wide as if to embrace a crowd of devout parishioners. Her message is clear -

choose me, and I will be a kind and loving mother for all of you.

These two contenders for the seat in the Elysee Palace are very different - Nicolas
Sarkozy, leader of the Union for a Popular Movement, and Segolene Royal, a Socialist
candidate. But they have much in common; and no matter who wins, he or she will have
to carry a heavy burden of national problems.

The French economy is in decline. Unemployment is above 9%, with the huge 22% for
young people; half of the voters live at public expense, getting salaries, pensions
or allowances from the state treasury.

This peculiar version of state-run capitalism has brought France's external debt to
an astronomical figure. In the economic growth rates, France is lagging behind all
European Union members except Portugal. Once an energetic power, a locomotive of the
old world, France has now been dubbed the Sick Man of Europe, and with good reason.

Take this gloomy picture and put it into the context of anti-Semitism that regularly
desecrates French cemeteries, highlight it with fires in Parisian suburbs, and
recall obsessive self-reflection that has become a national sport, as the French
themselves admit. You will conclude that each candidate should think twice before
fighting to rule today's France.

Sarkozy and Royal are more or less equally popular in France, which makes the choice
even more difficult. The 31.2% of votes received by Sarkozy a fortnight ago do not
in any way undermine the Socialists' outstanding 25.9%, especially considering that
the supporters of middle-of-the-road Democrat Francois Bayrou (18.6%) and
ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen (10.4%) could easily shift the balance in any
favor. This would happen, of course, if they received any signal, even a hint, from
their favorites but there was none. Apparently, Le Pen was so upset with his loss in
the first round that he advised his supporters to "abstain en masse" on May 6.

Francois Bayrou did not wish to endorse any candidate, either. He thinks Sarkozy is
controlled by Big Business, including the media, while Royal is unlikely to do much
for the economy - she simply does not have any plan, and whatever she does could
only further aggravate unemployment and increase budget deficit and foreign debt.

Bayrou did not even swallow the last, desperate bait from Royal - a prime minister's
post in case of her victory. She was asked not to bother him with offers of
positions in her government.

Thus, Bayrou's 6.8 million supporters were left without any advice on the eve of the
decisive round. No wonder, like the rest of France, they were glued to television
screens when 10 national channels showed a Sarko-Sego duel. Alas, it did not change
much. Each contender scored some points and skillfully avoided unpleasant subjects,
but there was no knockout. Sarkozy tried to portray Royal as an old-fashioned Klara
Zetkin-type Socialist obsessed with the idea of wage-leveling, while she lashed out
at him for being a failure as a former interior minister. She recalled how Sarkozy
loudly promised "zero tolerance" to crime and got a 26% growth in school violence
over a period of five years.

Otherwise, they were true to themselves - he insisted that the state should reduce
its role, spending and taxes, whereas she demanded the opposite. In the end, both
proclaimed their victory, which did nothing to help 44 million voters to make up
their minds.

The latest polls show that Nicolas Sarkozy is ahead of Royal - 53% against 47% -

but this ratio is tentative. The main point is that this time the French are fully
aware of responsibility for their choice. Too much depends on which of these polar
figures becomes president on May 6.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily
represent those of RIA Novosti.


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