The future of France depends on the center

By Miguel Angel Benedicto (for Safe Democracy)

Miguel Angel Benedicto analyzes the Presidential elections now in their second round in France. As the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy competes with lefitist Segolene Royal for the Presidency, the victor will depend heavily on the votes of the 18 percent of the electorate who supported centrist Francois Bayrou. In Benedicto’s opinion, whoever wins will have to deal with economic recession, and carry out the necessary reforms to help France recover from the impasse that has been slowing its growth since 1997.

Miguel Angel Benedicto is a journalist and consultant specialized in European Affairs. He directs “Facil Consultores” and presides over the association “Ideas and Debate” based in Spain. He is the coauthor of “Europa a Debate. Veinte anos despues (1986-2006)” and “La Mayor Operacion de Solidaridad de la Historia”. With his three degrees in Law, Journalism, and Political Science, he is a teacher of postgraduate studies at the University Complutense in Madrid and the University King Juan Carlos.

THE FIRST ROUND of French elections were indicative of the fact that France is looking for a generational change.

85 percent of French citizens voted for two new candidates: Nicolas Sarkozy, who won 31.2 percent of the votes, and Segolene Royal, who attained 25.7 percent. They are the first two candidates for the Presidency of the Republic not to have been born before World War II. However, in order to win the second round, both are going to need to win over the remaining 18 percent of the electorate that voted for the centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou.

And whether the victor is Sarkozy or Royal, the new President will face a very complicated challenge: how to save France from the crisis that began during the elections of 2002 when Jacques Chirac defeated ultra-conservative Jean Marie Le Pen in an unexpected second round.

Whoever wins will have to help France overcome its economic recession. Economic troubles began in 1997 when France failed to confront globalization with reforms similar to the ones taken by Ex-Chancellor Schroeder of Germany, and continued by Angela Merkel. As the European Union continues to grow, France has fallen into last place, behind Portugal, with a growth rate of less than 2%. In 2006, unemployment was up to 9.4%, while youth unemployment had reached a staggering 22%.

The French social model, with 5 million state functionaries, is failing and no one has dared to try to save it. On the contrary, the economic policies of the Central European Bank and the excessive liberalism of the EU have only worsened the situation, and influenced the referendum in May of 2005 that rejected the drafting of a European Constitution.

Chirac was incapable of putting the cat back in the bag, and thus suffered the suburban rioting of November 2005 – which Sarkozy had to confront – and the youth protests over contract laws, which ended Villepin’s political career.

Sarkozy and Segolene must be capable of carrying out reforms to allow France – and the European Union for that matter – to overcome its current impasse. In terms of EU relations, while Sarkozy, the leader of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), is hoping to forge a mini-treaty, the leftist Segolene wants to leave the decision up to the people, opening the EU constitution up to a second referendum.

In the second round, Royal, despite her conflict with the elephants of her party, will count on the votes of the extreme left and Sarkozy on the votes of Le Pen’s National Front Party. The polls are giving an advantage of 3 or 4 points to the conservative leader. Yet, neither candidate will be able to win without moderating their rhetoric and wooing the part of the electorate that voted for Bayrou.

The key to the Presidency of the Sixth Republic depends upon the center.

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