Battle Royal

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Ségolène Royal has a real but less than even chance of becoming the first woman to lead France since Joan of Arc, some 600 years ago.

The glamorous Socialist has won a place in the critical second round of voting in the French Presidential election campaign on 6 May. The other survivor of Sunday’s first round ballot is the conservative, Nicolas Sarkozy.

At the time of writing, Royal had 25.8 per cent of the vote and Sarkozy 31.1 per cent. Although these figures will be progressively updated, the broad result won’t change.

The conservative and Socialist camps are both eyeing the seven million votes or 18.5 per cent that the Centrist, François Bayrou, won in the first round. (The third-placed Bayrou almost trebled his 2002 vote.)

‘I have good news for you,’ he told supporters. ‘France has changed forever.’ It would no longer be divided between the Right and the Left, as it had been in the past, he said. ‘There is now a Centre in France. I will not abandon this.’

Royal would be delighted, of course, if Bayrou urged his supporters to shift to her. So far he hasn’t.

Royal won’t get much help from the far-Right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was placed fourth, capturing 10.5 per cent of the vote. Apart from Bayrou’s voters, however, she will be courting those who chose one of the eight other candidates who were knocked out of the race many of whom were Leftists or independent Centrists.

Sarkozy, who many saw as tough and scary, softened his rhetoric in his triumphant election night speech. He said he wanted to ‘gather the French people around a new French dream.’ He also spoke of an ‘entrepreneurial’ future for a France that would reward hard work.

Some would have felt more comfortable, though, if he hadn’t spent the last working day of the first round campaign striking Napoleonic stances on a white horse. Or if he hadn’t repeatedly sliced the air with his hands as he made his final speech. Royal, by contrast, gestured with open arms, like a loving mother welcoming her children.

Sarkozy also called for a serious, ‘dignified’ debate in the second round. But Royal responded sharply, saying the paths she and her rival advocate are ‘quite different.’

‘I invite you to invent a new France,’ she said. ‘I am a free woman, as you are a free people. I am not the hostage of anyone, any pressure group or any financial power.’ There was, of course, more than a hint there that Sarkozy is in the grip of those dark powers.

Who says Royal is too soft to fight hard?

Le Pen also claimed a victory of sorts, although he failed to enter the second round, as he did in 2002. He said he had made ‘patriotism’ a major issue. Although that claim, like Le Pen himself, is outrageous, it cannot be dismissed lightly, as Australia’s bitter experience with Hansonism shows.

Pauline Hanson has long gone from Australia’s Parliament. But her words still echo there, in the voice and Government of her virtual disciple, John Howard. Le Pen’s bleak, divisive ‘patriotism’ the kind correctly described as the last refuge of the scoundrel will not be easily expunged from France, either.

However, the immediate challenges for the new President, whoever they are, will be economic. High unemployment, expensive protection of rural industries and sluggish growth will be at the top of the pile of issues on the new President’s desk.

In Rupert Murdoch’s The Times, George Walden, a particularly virulent critic, said that France now sometimes feels like a ‘vegetating catastrophe.’ That description, which the French author, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, once applied to Russia, must have stung. Another critic, Roger Cohen in the New York Times, said France had endured a ‘long stasis’ in the 12 years in which the outgoing President, Jacques Chirac, has held office.

These comments are unbalanced The critics forget that French life is supported by excellent public transport, world class services and some of the world’s most advanced engineering skills. The lifestyles and panache of the French are widely envied and its wine, food and civic pride are long remembered by most visitors.

France does face real economic challenges, but if either of the surviving candidates has a clear, effective, economic program, voters have still to see it.

The generational change that is about to arrive in the French government carries some debits. Chirac had his faults but, like Gough Whitlam, he had ‘a certain grandeur.’ That was never clearer than in 1995, when Chirac admitted that the French people and State had dispatched Jews to the Holocaust. ‘France accomplished the irreparable,’ he confessed.

Chirac was driven, too, by a noble pursuit of a united Europe. He was haunted by a spectre that still has to be exorcised: twice, in the 20th Century, the world was plunged into war by rampant nationalism in a bitterly divided Europe.

Unfortunately, laying that ghost to rest is not Sarkozy’s top priority.

Nor is it Royal’s.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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