Large Turnout Sets Up France's Left-Right Runoff

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Robert Siegel talks with Jean Le Sieur, executive producer for news magazines and talk shows at France 24 news channel, about the first round of presidential elections in France. Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy emerged victorious over the weekend. Le Sieur says the most remarkable outcome is the high level of voter turnout.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel

In France, the presidential campaign has entered the second and final round. Yesterday's vote produced no one with an absolute majority. So conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal were out campaigning today for their runoff on May 6. Sarkozy came first yesterday with just over 31 percent of the vote. Royal, who would be France's first female president if she were elected, came in second with just under 26 percent.

But Jean Le Sieur, executive producer for newsmagazines and talk shows at France 24, tells us that the most impressive number of all yesterday was probably the turnout. How many people actually voted, Mr. Le Sieur?

Mr. JEAN LE SIEUR (Executive Producer, France 24 News Channel): Well, about 85 percent of the registered voters voted, and that's like 10 points more than the last presidential election five years ago. And, you know, in a world of old democracies where everybody is complaining about the voter apathy, it was quite an incredible turnout.

SIEGEL: Well, on May 6, the French will have the classic match-up of a Gaullist or neo-Gaullist versus a socialist, right versus left. Are Sarkozy and Royal likely to stress their very clear differences, or are they more likely to moderate those differences to appeal to centrist voters?

Mr. LE SIEUR: Well, both of them, you know, represent a new generation of French politicians. You know, Nicolas Sarkozy on the right was compared to some kind of Frenchified Margaret Thatcher or even George Bush. At the same time, Segolene Royal has been identified by many people as a very modern version of socialism, you know, it's much more social democrats, you know, breaking with French traditions of state-run economy and old dogmas like that.

Well, you know, in the last days of the campaign, Mr. Sarkozy, kind of, toned down his so-called Anglo-Saxon rhetoric, and came back more to the center. Segolene Royal was a little more socialist than she was at the beginning of her own campaign. So, yes, we're getting back to a traditional battle between center-right and a traditionally socialist French politician.

SIEGEL: What role do the issues of immigration or a French national identity play in this campaign?

Mr. LE SIEUR: Well, a very strong one. Because Mr. Sarkozy was very provocative at one point in suggesting that he would create a ministry of immigration and national identity. You know, linking both things. And that was, you know, considered very provocative. You know, immigration played a big role, but at that same time, you know, Mr. Le Pen - the extreme rightwing French politician - lost like over a million votes as compared to what he got a few years ago.

So either you conclude from that the Sarkozy has been appealing to part of his electorate, or the French people are, kind of, getting used to the social problems that go with difficult relationships between different communities.

SIEGEL: I just like you to describe for us a bit the political mood in France. It seems, from what we read here, that French voters, however they vote, regard the situation in France today as somehow fundamentally wrong and in need of change. Do I have that right, and what is it that people are so unhappy about if so?

Mr. LE SIEUR: Well, people are unhappy because there's a very strong conflict between what they're used to. You know, French people are used to not working that hard and still keeping a social model that gives them a lot of security if they lose their jobs, if they're sick, if they're old, if they're ill. Little by little, you know, everybody is realizing that that's a very exciting system that can't last long as the population gets older.

And people are, kind of, torn between the realization that we are losing that kind of system of living. And both Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy in their own parties represent the awareness that, you know, we have to change. The only question is, are we going to change, you know, in a very comfortable way, which is Segolene Royal is trying to convince the French people of. And are we going to have to be a little more courageous, a little more inventive, which is what Mr. Sarkozy is suggesting we should do.

SIEGEL: Well, Jean Le Sieur, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. LE SIEUR: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Jean Le Sieur, who's executive producer for newsmagazines and talk shows at France 24, a French cable news channel.

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