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Conservative, Socialist Candidates to Face Off in French Election

April 23, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: And now to the French elections. Margaret Warner is covering that story for us. I spoke with her from Paris earlier today.

Margaret, welcome. I was struck by the enthusiasm of this election. What, 44.5 million people voted, 85 percent turnout; what drove that?

MARGARET WARNER: A couple of things, Gwen. First of all, I think people recognized that they had an opportunity here to elect a real new generation of leaders.

The two front-runners who will now go in the runoff, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, are both in their early 50s, more than 20 years younger than Jacques Chirac, and the whole generation of warhorses that’s really retiring.

But the other reason, the other thing that drove turnout and higher registration was that the French did not want to repeat what they found to be a profound embarrassment in 2002, when voter apathy and a huge split on the left let this xenophobic, right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen make it to the runoff.

And so, today, there’s a tremendous sense of pride here in France, at least among people who I talked to, that not only was — that Le Pen was held to only about 10 percent to 11 percent of the vote versus 17 percent of the vote last time. As one woman in a pastry shop said to me this morning, “We were not embarrassed. We did not disgrace ourselves.”

Time for a change

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
There's definitely a sense that France needs to adapt to the global economy and that it is time for a change.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, I read that Jean Le Pen said, "I thought the French were unhappy and that's why I ran again." Was the mood upbeat as a result of this, or even leading into this election?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the mood yesterday was very upbeat. You know, it's quite different than an Election Day in the United States. It was a Sunday. It was an absolutely beautiful day. It's the end of the traditional two-week school holiday. There were people lying on the grass in parks and sitting in cafes.

But there is also a sense among French voters that something needs to change here. I mean, the French had appeared, at least to a visitor like myself, to have an absolutely wonderful life. But there is persistent chronic unemployment of nearly 10 percent. And, in fact, its per capita GDP is falling relative to other countries in Europe.

So there's definitely a sense that France needs to adapt to the global economy and that it is time for a change. So I would not say that the French are at all satisfied. It's just that they saw an opportunity to express themselves and in a way that would give them two legitimate, serious candidates that they could be proud of.

Domestic issues

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
When you look at Sarkozy and Royal and where their votes came from, they both did very well really all over the country...But what differentiated them very much related to economic issues.

GWEN IFILL: And so was this outcome then driven mostly by domestic issues rather than international issues that we see playing out here at home?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, very much domestic issues. And, in fact, when you look at Sarkozy and Royal and where their votes came from, they both did very well really all over the country. There are different regions where each did a little better.

But what differentiated them very much related to economic issues, and it had to do with age and it had to do with certain social and economic class. Royal, who's from the left, the Socialist, got what one pollster said to me today was the '68 generation. That's the generation of now aging, now aged former students who lead the 1968 left student protests here and who are now 55 and older and who very much want to protect the very socially protective system that the French have.

I mean, you can retire here at 55 with very, very generous lifetime pensions. It is very hard to fire somebody here. If you are fired, you get wonderful unemployment benefits. You get five weeks guaranteed paid vacation. There is universal and free health care, universal and free higher education. The people who didn't want to lose that tended to vote for Royal.

The Sarkozy, what he got a greater percentage of were younger voters, and by that I mean the people in their late-20s and in their 30s who are really entering the workforce who recognize or believe that France needs to change.

And the difference was very apparent yesterday, actually, with two groups of young voters. I was at one little cafe in the afternoon, and next to me was a table of young people who actually -- three of the four were children of immigrants, from Tunisia, from Iran, and from the Caribbean. They're all studying for different careers; they're all worried about whether they'll get jobs. And yet they said, "Oh, but we don't want what Sarkozy wants. We don't want an American-style system where an employer can fire you, where you have no health care."

Then, last night after the Sarkozy event, I went with some French friends to a sort of Sarko-disco, with all these 30-somethings dancing the night away to strains of Donna Summer, singing songs about Sarkozy. And talking to them, they were young graphic artists, young lawyers, young people in intellectual property or software, who said, you know, "We have to join the global economy. We have to have a more flexible workplace. We have to have more opportunities. We have to take more risks."

So that is really, I would say, the most important dividing line between the two.

Electing a woman

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
[Royal] is running actually quite self-consciously as a woman and as sort of the mother of France.

GWEN IFILL: Here in the United States, people talk a lot about gender when it comes to presidential politics. I was wondering if Segolene Royal's gender, being a woman in this race, had any effect on the outcome?

MARGARET WARNER: Gwen, of course that is very, very hard to judge, because people often aren't honest about what they really think on that issue. But she is running actually quite self-consciously as a woman and as sort of the mother of France and aligning herself with this classic French figure of Maria, and, you know, the woman we think of when we think of the French Revolution.

And she wears skirts. People make much of that. She doesn't wear the sort of more masculine pantsuit.

But many French said to me they wanted to elect a woman. I met a man in the park yesterday who was walking his dog, who said, "I really would like to elect a woman. I'd like to elect Royal, but I'm not sure she's up to the job." Now, that could either be code for "Is a woman up to the job?" or it could be because, in fact, there were real doubts about her, given her performance in the campaign.

Chasing Bayrou's voters

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
If you add up the fringe vote from the left and the right and give them to Sarkozy and Royal, basically Sarkozy ends up in the low 40s, 42 percent, 43 percent, and Royal ends up...around 36 percent. So the Bayrou 18 percent is the key.

GWEN IFILL: Well, now we're looking forward to a May 6th final runoff between these two candidates, and there was a third candidate, Francois Bayrou, who got 18 percent of the vote. I assume that both of the leading candidates are now chasing after his voters. Who are they?

MARGARET WARNER: They are absolutely the key, because if you add up the fringe vote from the left and the right and give them to Sarkozy and Royal, basically Sarkozy ends up in the low 40s, 42 percent, 43 percent, and Royal ends up, you know, around 36 percent. So the Bayrou 18 percent is the key.

His votes were the upper-middle-class, kind of progressive elite, highly educated, more independent-minded voters, what we might call yuppies, or sometimes here in France they call "Bobos," the Bourgeois-Boheme, you know, the people living the good life, someone said to me, "Well, the Upper West Side."

There's no exact analogy, but those were his voters. Now, pre-election polls said that, if he weren't in the race, 60 percent of them classically would go for the candidate of the left and a third would go to the candidate of the right, and then the rest maybe would stay home.

So Royal has to at least get 60 percent of them. I haven't done the exact math for that. But, you know, they also cared about jobs. They also cared about the economy.

But it's unclear whether what they want is her solution, which is still to have what she called a France that is protective yet dynamic -- but maintaining the social protections remains very important -- or whether they believe in what Sarkozy is advocating. And his message has been France needs to work harder and work longer. He's saying this in a country with a 35-hour workweek.

So they are very much up for grabs. His campaign manager and people have said his vote is sort of not for sale, not for trading. So I don't think there is going to be any kind of a deal. And Royal and Sarkozy are going to have to go after the Bayrou voters really voter by voter.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, we're looking forward to the rest of your report from France. Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Gwen.