France Begins Picking Sides for Next Election
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Long before there are official candidates, more than seven months before the vote, the French presidential campaign is underway. The Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have right-wing support. And it appears the majority of French socialists would like their candidate to be the charismatic Segolene Royal.
We have this report from Paris, where our correspondent is Eleanor Beardsley.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Each morning, retirees Maurice and Madeleine Souzana(ph) start the day with a croissant and the radio news in their small Paris kitchen.
Ms. MADELEINE SOUZANA (Resident, Paris): (French spoken)
Mr. MAURICE SOUZANA (Resident, Paris): (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: By French standards, the Souzanas are considered on the political right. They want more controls on immigration and less controls on the economy. And they say the 35-hour workweek has made French people lazy. For the Souzanas, there is only one man who can save France.
Mr. SOUZANA: (Through Translator) The main thing that I like about Sarkozy is that he wants real change. He says he wants a rupture with the way things are.
Ms. SOUZANA: (Through Translator) Because President Chirac has let us down. We voted for him, but his politics are almost as left-wing as President Mitterrand before him. We believe in Sarkozy. We feel that he will make things evolve in France.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JOHNNY HALLYDAY (Musician): (Singing) (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: At a recent summer party rally, Sarkozy appeared on stage with popular aging French rocker Johnny Hallyday. The maverick politician, son of a Hungarian immigrant, likes to highlight his differences with the old guard French political establishment. It's not hard. Sarkozy did not attend the elite schools that mold most French leaders and he openly admires America. And his supporters, like the Souzanas, say Sarkozy is not afraid to speak the truth, even if it's painful.
He recently addressed a group of business leaders.
Mr. NICOLAS SARKOZY (Interior Minister, France): (Through translator) France has still not recovered from the historically stupid mistake of telling people that if they work less they can earn more.
BEARDSLEY: The most popular candidate of the Socialists is Segolene Royal, an astute and media-savvy mother of four, whose charm and elegant attire have drawn comparisons to Audrey Hepburn. Jealous male presidential aspirants are trying desperately to discredit her. Her rivals include party leaders Francois Hollande, who also happens to be Royal's long-term partner and the father of her children. Gossip about the couple's political rivalry adds to the media frenzy surrounding Royal, who, like Sarkozy, says she wants to change France.
Ms. SEGOLENE ROYAL (Presidential Candidate, Socialist Party): (Through translator) The French are tired of living in insecurity and cannot accept a state that goes back on its promise to protect its citizens. We can no longer tolerate the arrogance of this government where money is king. I want to build a republic based on respect and equality, not privileges for a certain few.
BEARDSLEY: Working mother Sabrina Sanchez(ph), who is spending an afternoon at home with her 3-year-old daughter, Julia(ph), says she'll vote for Royal because of her impressive drive, and because, as a mother, Royal will fight to keep the public schools strong. But that's not the only reason, says Sanchez.
Ms. SABRINA SANCHEZ: The second reason why I like Segolene Royal, because she's a woman, simply. And it's very, I know, sexist of me. But she's a woman and we've never had a French president who would be a woman, and that would be a great change for France.
BEARDSLEY: Royal's detractors say this is exactly why she has attracted so much attention and that she has no substance behind her. But Valerie Toranian, editor of Elle magazine, says mastery of economic principles does not win the presidency. The French, she says, may be looking for a mother figure.
Ms. VALERIE TORANIAN (Editor, Elle Magazine): (Through translator) As much as France in the 1950s and '60s was the France of de Gaulle, where we needed a father figure to protect us. Today, in an age where things are changing so fast with globalization, we are looking for a super mother figure to reassure us.
BEARDSLEY: The race for the French presidency is on and it's already being dubbed the Sego-Sarko Show. Both potential candidates have just returned from trips abroad worthy of a head of state. Royal saw Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Rome, while Sarkozy visited the U.S., decorating 9/11 firefighters and meeting with President George Bush.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.