TOPICS > Politics

France Prepares for Presidential Run-off Election

May 4, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Paris in the spring. And on Tuesday, the left took the streets for the annual May Day parade. Workers, socialists, communists and Trotskyites singing hymns of socialist solidarity, as they march down the city’s ancient streets.

France, with its generous public benefits and worker-friendly labor rules, has been close to a socialist paradise in the family of industrial democracies, and city planner Fabrice LaBroille hopes it will stay that way.

FABRICE LABROILLE, City Planner (through translator): My life is good, and I like that to be the case for everybody.

MARGARET WARNER: But France’s high unemployment and lagging economic growth have dimmed that good life and given center stage in this presidential campaign to this question: Must France fundamentally change to compete in a globalized world?

The standard-bearer of the message that it must, center-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, the energetic son of a Hungarian immigrant, wants to do to his country’s economic system what Margaret Thatcher did to hers. “The French must work more to earn more,” he says, and he believes many French agree with him.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, French Presidential Candidate (through translator): I’ve met a France that doesn’t want a break, but a France that wants to build, that wants to work, that wants to get ahead, but that hasn’t been allowed to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: Sarkozy’s remedy is positively Reaganesque: to lower taxes, which at the upper ends hit 60 percent; to introduce flexibility in the labor laws; and to stop penalizing employers and workers if they exceed the legal 35-hour workweek.

Hoping to stop that vision of France dead in its tracks, Segolene Royal, the coolly elegant former education minister and Socialist Party candidate. The first woman with a serious chance of becoming French president, she too tells the country it needs to change, but in a kinder, gentler, more humane way.

SEGOLENE ROYAL, French Presidential Candidate (through translator): In the France that I dream of, there is a place for every man and every woman. No one will be excluded.

MARGARET WARNER: She says the way to spur economic growth is to spend more on education and research. She wants to raise the minimum wage by 20 percent, beef up the universal government-funded pension system, and create subsidized jobs for the vast numbers of young French who are unemployed.

'Things have to change'

Christine Ockrent
Political Commentator
The French want to think that they are really craving for change, but at the same time they fear change.

CHRISTINE OCKRENT, Political Commentator: The French want to think that they are really craving for change, but at the same time they fear change.

MARGARET WARNER: Christine Ockrent, one of France's most respected anchors and analysts, says it's not an easy choice for the French, who are suspicious of globalization and even capitalism, yet also fear being left behind.

CHRISTINE OCKRENT: They know that they can't afford forever to have such an expensive welfare state, and yet they are very much attached to that welfare state. They know they have a very high unemployment rate, about the highest among the rich European countries.

So they know things have to change. But at the same time, they're very reluctant as to what shape that change might take.

MARGARET WARNER: In their cozy apartment at the center of Paris, 41-year-olds Christophe and Severine Schulte live the kind of everyday life that many ordinary French cherish. He's a public high school phys-ed teacher. She's a book editor.

They don't make a lot of money, but they enjoy the value of such social benefits as subsidized day care, where their two young children learn to distinguished among letters of the alphabet and varieties of French cheese. They're voting for Royal on Sunday.

CHRISTOPHE SCHULTE, Teacher: I don't want to get into a two-level society, where the easy and rich people becoming more and more easy and rich, and forget more than the half of the other population.

SEVERINE SCHULTE, Book Editor: I dream of a society where everyone could have a chance to progress.

High unemployment rates

Olivia Gobillard
French Citizen
I think most French people want security. I think lots of them are very scared. And by being scared, they become less ambitious, which I think is a real big shame of France.

MARGARET WARNER: French society today has its own unique characteristics. People here linger over long lunches and early aperitifs in the brasseries and restaurants of Paris.

Small, privately owned stores abound in all of the French capital's neighborhoods. Parisians still buy their daily bread, meat and other staples from locally owned shops that the state protects against large-scale corporate competition.

At the same time, France also boasts successful global corporations of its own. Along the Champs-Elysees are storefronts bearing the brand names of French automobile, fashion and cosmetics companies that are global giants themselves.

Yet only 38 French enterprises rank in Fortune's Global 500 today. And France's per capita growth rate stands among the lowest in Europe. Europe's other two powerhouses, Germany and Britain, have leapfrogged ahead of France, so those calling for change here say there is no time to waste.

They include Olivia Gobillard and Raphael Parente, both unemployed, both consulting with a recruiter in Paris who specializes in placing high-end executive assistants increasingly abroad. Thirty-four-year-old fashion industry veteran Gobillard is seeking work in London, because she's stymied by the lack of opportunities here, and she's voting for Sarkozy.

OLIVIA GOBILLARD, French Citizen: I think most French people want security. I think lots of them are very scared. And by being scared, they become less ambitious, which I think is a real big shame of France.

RAPHAEL PARENTE, French Citizen (through translator): If the labor laws change, and if young people get more chances and responsibility, then, of course, I would stay, but that's not the case right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Agency Chief Davide Mele says the departure of young professionals from France today is an exodus.

DAVIDE MELE, Agency Chief: There are people who would like to work more and earn more, and not only work 35 hours a week. And so it is a frustration, because we are people, we have people in the market who are ambitious, in terms of career opportunities, but are also ambitious financially, who want to make money. And I think France needs to get its house in order.

Debating the work week

Thierry Rochas
French Citizen
Many people like me, I am from the center, said the same thing. They said, "He's got the best program, but she is the best -- she's the most beautiful humanity for France."

MARGARET WARNER: Millions of French gathered in homes and bistros Wednesday night to watch the candidates debate how to get that house in order. Their competing visions were particularly stark during fierce exchanges over the 35-hour workweek.

SEGOLENE ROYAL (through translator): You know what people have done with the extra time they've had after their 35 hours? These people, at least 70 percent of them, have been spending more time with their families. And there are many women, especially those who are working in some of the most difficult jobs, who, after 35 hours, are so exhausted that lengthening the working day is not going to be social progress.

NICOLAS SARKOZY (through translator): Madam Royal, what is the point of free time if you don't have the money to pay for vacations for your children? What is the point of free time when, at the end of a long month of work, there's nothing left?

There is a problem of purchasing power. You say it's great, I visited a company where they're working 32 hours. But if it's the small salaries, it's not all that great, and that's why I want to give employees the freedom to choose.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet some undecided voters, like Thierry Rochas, said they remain torn between the two, even after the fiery debate ended.

THIERRY ROCHAS, French Citizen: Many people like me, I am from the center, said the same thing. They said, "He's got the best program, but she is the best -- she's the most beautiful humanity for France."

MARGARET WARNER: But on Sunday, France as a nation will have to make a basic decision, as it elects a president for a five-year term, whether accepting the rigors of the globalized economy or preserving what makes France different is the best way to restore this country's glory and economic might.

Final campaign days

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
I've talked to scores of voters here. And I would say all up and down the sector, from doctors to cab drivers, there is a sense that this is a very important, even decisive election.

JIM LEHRER: And Margaret added an update in a talk with Ray Suarez earlier this evening.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, outside commentators and political analysts have been paying a lot of attention to this being the end of the 12 years of Jacques Chirac and calling this a pivotal election. Have the voters that you've been talking to been looking at it the same way?

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely, Ray. I've talked to scores of voters here. And I would say all up and down the sector, from doctors to cab drivers, there is a sense that this is a very important, even decisive election.

It's based on two things. First of all, this is a new generation, new faces, as you said, and there's a sense that they're electing a new generation of leaders. But, primarily, there's a strong sense that really France has some serious problems that haven't been addressed, here at home, and also in terms of its relationship with Europe and the United States and the rest of the world, that they really have to get on with it.

At the same time, there is a certain healthy dose of skepticism, the sense that this is a hard country to turn around. One shopkeeper said that to me. He said, "Look, France has a very definite way of doing things, and no French president can turn that around quickly."

RAY SUAREZ: On the eve of the polling, how do things look in the race? Where do things stand?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, after the debate Wednesday night, the gross poll numbers, Sarkozy widened his league over Segolene Royal from 2 percent to 4 percent, from 6 percent to 8 percent, but I would add a caveat there about those kind of horserace polls.

I thought more telling was what the polling told us about the debate itself. When people were asked who was most convincing, not who are you going to vote for, but who was most convincing, Sarkozy was chosen by 53 percent and Royal by only 31 percent.

And he won as most convincing in all the big economic questions, who can restart economic growth, unemployment, even the 35-hour workweek, which people here absolutely seem to love. She did win as most convincing on the environment and schools, but he won the big, big questions.

Also, he was seen as a better leader, as having more stature, as better able to represent France in the world. In short, though she really made a huge push in the debate to look confident and aggressive, he seems to have won the "more presidential" category.

RAY SUAREZ: As in a lot of countries, I guess the active campaign has gone dark, and the candidates sort of disappear for this last bit before the polls open. But Segolene Royal took her final opportunities to give a very tough interview to French radio, didn't she?

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely. This had to do with what's going on in the community of French of recent immigrant origin in the suburbs, the so-called banlieues, and elsewhere in France. There's been a lot of tension.

We spent a lot of time in that community for our piece on Monday. And they are very, very opposed -- many of them are very opposed to Sarkozy. It's not monolithic. And this stems, of course, from his comments during the 2005 riots calling the young people in the suburbs, quote, "scum," saying he would, quote, "power wash them out of those neighborhoods."

Royal said today that his election would unleash violence and brutality. And when she was asked, "Do you think there will be an outbreak of riots if he is elected?" She said, "I think so, I think so." And that was really seen as throwing fuel on the fire.

It's unclear how much influence this community will have. France does not count by race, so you can only tell by looking at certain very concentrated population centers, but they are believed to have voted 80 percent against Sarkozy in the first round, and they vow to do the same this time.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner joining us from Paris. Good to talk to you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Great talking to you, Ray.