Sego, Sarko, François and (Somehow) Jean-Marie


Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy’s supporters have both been handing out presidential election flyers in the Rue Cler market one of the ritziest parts of Paris. Just how many votes Ségolène’s Socialist supporters can expect from the cashmere-coated aristocrats, who shop there for the world’s most beautiful food, isn’t clear.

To outsiders, the Seventh Arrondissement looks like prime conservative country. It would likely give Sarkozy a level of support that would embarrass the apparatchiks, who carefully stage-managed elections in the old Eastern European republics.

If a third candidate, the centrist François Bayrou, despatched any of his troops to this unlikely battlefield, I missed it. The only sign of Bayrou was a series of portraits pasted onto the wall of a local corner store.

With less than three weeks to go to the first round of voting on April 22, Sarkozy remains the front-runner. Recent polls have given him 26 per cent of the vote, against 24.5 per cent for Royal, 19.5 per cent for Bayrou and 15 per cent for the far Right’s Jean-Marie le Pen. These figures suggest that no candidate is likely to get the 50 per cent of the votes in the first round that would make a second round unnecessary.

Anyone who doubts French technology might well be about to lose a contract or two. In many ways, France still leads the world its engineering skills are awesome. One of its TGV trains has just set a world speed record of 574.8 kph   try that on the Sydney system! Only a Japanese bullet train, with maglev technology which keeps it above, rather than on its rails has travelled faster.

And Jacques Chirac’s decision to become leader of the Western world’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq,  four years ago, has never looked better.

The problem is the French embrace of free-trade and globalisation was not as enthusiastic as that of many other countries. For instance, proud of producing what they believe to be the world’s best wine, bread and cheese, the French have been happy to heavily subsidise their farmers. But French farms are too small to compete with producers on US prairies or Australia’s outback stations.

Similarly, some aspects of French work-place organisation have a whiff of Paul Keating’s ‘industrial museum ‘ about them. Royal, for example, has just reassured Airbus workers that, if she becomes President, she will look after their jobs. Protection doesn’t save jobs you save jobs by placing your product among the best in the world and resolving your production and distribution problems on time.

That’s a tough lesson, anywhere. Australians had to learn it and many of us were genuinely surprised to find that our products could be world class. The French shouldn’t have too much trouble catching up.

So, with French economic growth lagging over recent years, French voters are ready for change. And all three major candidates in the French presidential election have obliged by saying, loudly and often, that they stand for ‘change.’

Socialism, however, is hardly the leading edge political solution that some once thought it to be. Royal has tackled that by declaring she is her own woman. No doubt she is. Many voters, though, are still not sure what, exactly, the Socialist candidate meant by that.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy is, above all, the law and order candidate. He makes many voters uneasy. In fact, he shocked the public when he said he would clear up hooliganism in some of Paris’s poorer suburbs with a steam-cleaning device called a Karcher.

Many observers, particularly in the United States, see Muslim immigrants, of mainly African origin, as the prime troublemakers in these suburbs. However youth unemployment rates of 50 per cent here are, undoubtedly, the root cause of the trouble. An Australian familiar with the situation says last year’s Paris riots have much more in common with the Macquarie Fields outbreaks, rather than the Cronulla riots, which were race-based.

No one in France doubts Sarkozy’s determination least of all the young rioters who participated in a recent disturbance at the Gard du Nord. They found themselves in jail, on six-month terms, just three days later under a law that had Sarkozy’s fingerprints all over it.

Sarkozy’s overwhelming message is that ‘we are all French’ and must obey French law. He has also said that he wants to keep Islamists in France ‘cut off from foreign influences.’

Good luck.

And Bayrou?

A poll earlier this year showed him beating Sarkozy in a second round ballot, so he cannot be dismissed lightly. It is too simple altogether to see Bayrou as the Clayton’s candidate the vote to cast when you are not casting a vote. French voters shocked themselves in the 2002 presidential elections, when Le Pen alarmed the world by making it through to the second round.

That won’t happen again.

Sadly though if there is a genuine Keating-style economic reformer among the three leading candidates to replace Chirac, as French President, he or she has not yet stood up.

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