LIANE HANSEN, host:
French voters are casting ballots today to elect their next president. They must decide between conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal, who are proposing starkly different courses for the country's future. The two candidates elaborated their positions over the last few months in a presidential campaign that has increasingly divided the French people.
Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Alan Bassousa(ph) has been cutting up meat in his Paris butcher shop for the last 52 years. Rotisserie chickens turn on a spit outside of Boucherie Alan(ph). Inside, the floor is covered with sawdust. As Bassousa expertly trims a lamb shank, he explains why he thinks France needs Sarkozy.
Mr. ALAN BASSOUSA (Butcher Shop Owner): (Through translator) In France, no one wants to get up and go to work early anymore. People are helped too much by the government. So people like us who work 10 and 12 hours a day pay for all the idlers. Too much is too much. We need to get France back on the right track. And I'm voting for Sarkozy.
BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy, who has campaigned as the candidate who defends the early rising worker, proposes relaxing the 35-hour workweek to allow people to work longer and earn more. Sarkozy says he will also cut taxes and red tape on small businesses to encourage hiring. He advocates cutting off benefits to the unemployed who turn down more than two job offers, and he wants to toughen immigration laws and sentences for repeat juvenile offenders.
While butcher Bassousa thinks those are all admirable plans, they scare 35-year-old insurance agent Cyril Bon Fit(ph).
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BEARDSLEY: Bon Fit who is picnicking with his wife and son in the Andre Citroen Park near the Seine River, said Segolene Royal's vision of the country is closer to his own.
Mr. CYRIL BON FIT (Insurance Agent): (Through translator) We're looking for a fair and more balanced society. For example, we can't accept that a CEO's salary is 1,000 times higher than it's employees. Sarkozy divides people and plays on their fears. Segolene Royal does not have a selfish individualistic approach, but rather one for the collective good.
Ms. SEGOLENE ROYAL (French Politician): (French Spoken)
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BEARDSLEY: On the campaign trail, Royal preached that a fairer France will be a stronger France. She promised to raise the minimum wage and create 500,000 youth job by reapportioning government subsidies to companies. And she describes the 35-hour workweek as social progress, saying it gives people time to spend with their families. As both candidates have hammered out their messages to ebullient crowds, one sometimes has the impression of looking at two different countries with two sets of values.
Serge Sur is a professor of public law at University of Paris II. He says the French differ over the solutions to the country's problems, not the problems themselves, and France is far less divided than it was 30 years ago.
Professor SERGE SUR (Public Law, University of Paris II): You do not have two Frances socially. There is no longer a divide between a working class and a bourgeoisie. You have a main middle class. You have no longer an ideological divide. Because communism is dead and people who are voting for the far right it's not for ideological reasons, it's a kind of despair. It's no longer a divide in terms of values, because all region is not an act of divide between French people, and you have a lot of consensus about humanitarian values.
BEARDSLEY: While polls show unemployment is the top voter concern, a close second is social inequality. And no candidate advocates doing away with France's cherished social support model. Still, many French voters say they can't bring themselves to choose Sarkozy or Royal, finding both their visions too extreme. They say they will either abstain or cast a blank ballot in Sunday's runoff.
For NPR News, I'm Eleonor Beardsley in Paris.
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