In France, A Classic Right-Left Contest

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Bob Edme / AP

Campaign posters of French presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Segolene Royal in Anglet, France, April 12, 2007.

It may not have been the most novel outcome imaginable, but France voted emphatically — and massively — for a classic right-left showdown in the battle for the nation's presidency. A whopping 85% voter turnout on Sunday fueled conservative standard-bearer and hands-on favorite Nicolas Sarkozy into the May 6 runoff against his principal rival, Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal. But while both finalists spent much of their late campaigning playing to their respective hard-right and hard-left flanks, their efforts to win the presidency now depends upon their success in wooing a new force in French politics: France's suddenly surging center.

Early election returns showed Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) candidate Sarkozy winning around 30% of the vote, versus nearly 26% for Royal — largely in line with what recent polls had projected. But the strong, 18.5% showing by Francois Bayrou of the Union for French Democracy party casts the centrist in the role of possible kingmaker going into the second round. The weight of the Bayrou vote was further enhanced by the electoral whipping of extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in France's last presidential race in 2002 shocked the nation by making it into the final against incumbent President Jacques Chirac with nearly 18%. This time around, the huge turnout limited the National Front leader to just 11%. The key to the outcome of the runoff will be whom Bayrou and Le Pen voters decide to back — with the electoral weight making the Centrist's supporters the prize.

Until recently, simulated second-round scenarios favored Sarkozy over Royal — though most also found him losing to Bayrou. For that reason, many Sarkozy backers have long prayed for a Royal matchup. But there are signs the contest may not be a Sarko slam-dunk after all. First, the last poll simulation found Sarkozy-Royal ending in a 50-50% tie. Meanwhile, Sarkozy — who built his hard-line, law-and-order reputation as France's Interior Minister — has sparked outrage among rivals and even consternation among his backers by embracing crime-fighting policies and immigration proposals that some critics have likened to Le Pen's xenophobia. His electoral pledge to create a new "ministry of immigration and national identity," critics claim, was an attempt to imply foreigners are a threat to Frenchness and was aimed at luring Le Pen voters.

"Sarkozy's high first-round score reflects his success in seducing hard- and extreme-right voters, but he'll pay for that in the second round," predicts Pierre Moscovici, a Socialist Party heavyweight and vice-president of the European Parliament. While mainstream conservatives backing Sarkozy's tax-cutting, market-friendly economic polices may overlook his repeated pledges to help Le Pen voters "out of their ghetto" and into his camp, Moscovici warns that the hard-right lean will repel most people who supported Bayrou. "Sarkozy reminds me of Berlusconi," Moscovici comments. "The Italian right forgave him every excess, the Italian center fled him."

The problem with that partisan analysis is that Royal rejected calls to merge campaigns with Bayrou. And now, even after Sunday's results, Bayrou is demarcating his territory. In a speech after the first results came in, rather than conceding defeat Bayrou declared victory for "a large and independent center [party], capable of speaking and acting above outdated cleavages". Promising "from this evening on, French politics will change and will never again be the same," Bayrou warned that any presidential finalist wanting his endorsement will have to acknowledge "a new kind of politics is being born and the hope in it is large and just, and no one, truly no one, can halt it."

In speeches Sunday night, Sarkozy and Royal both opened their ranks to backers of vanquished candidates, suggesting the two weeks up to the May 6 final will doubtless be busy with closed-door bargaining with Bayrou. But even Bayrou voters seem torn on whom to support. "In terms of the method and manner she'd govern France, Sego is closest to Bayrou," comments Pascal Benazet, a 34-year-old financial marketing researcher at Bayrou's campaign headquarters after the first round results came in. "But in terms of economic policy, Sarkozy is closer to Bayrou." And like everyone else looking on in France now, Benazet says it's now clear this campaign will be won at the center — though who will pull that off is still anyone's guess.