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An American Shadow Over France's Election?

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, April 30, 2007 – Should socialist candidate Segolene Royal defy polls and pundits and go on to win Sunday’s French presidential election, her first call of thanks should go to the “third man” in the two-candidate run-off, defeated centrist Francois Bayrou.

 

 Her second should be to George W. Bush.

 

Royal et Bayrou font bloc contre Sarkozy – Royal and Bayrou form block against (Nicolas) Sarkozy -- read the lead headline in Saturday’s Le Monde. It suggested a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the well-respected, left-wing daily’s editors: Bayrou has refused to endorse either Royal or her conservative opponent. But in appearing on the same stage with Royal in a staged “debate” over their difference in economic policy, Bayrou was relatively mild in his criticism of Royal, who was described in various news accounts as “confident and smiling.”  The two pledged to find common ground, and Royal has since suggested she’d consider Bayrou as her prime minister.

 

At the same time, Bayrou has been sharply critical of the conservative frontrunner, accusing Sarkozy of trying to stifle the debate with Royal and suggesting his leadership style could prove detrimental to French democratic principles.

“Nicolas Sarkozy, through his proximity to business circles and media power, through his taste for intimidation and threats, will concentrate power as it has never been before,” The New York Times quoted him as saying.

That kind of language is in itself significant, given that Royal must by some estimates win the votes of roughly two-thirds of Bayrou’s 6.8 million votes if she hopes to catch and defeat Sarkozy, whose lead in polls remains at about 4 percent as the two finalists prepare for their single debate before the May 6 runoff vote.

 

George Bush’s role in this campaign remains more subtle but equally intriguing. He hasn’t spoken out, of course, for either candidate, and if he did, it seems far more likely he’d support the more conservative Sarkozy, who also is perceived as being the candidate more receptive to the United States.

But as an “anybody but Sarkozy” movement gains traction among his French opponents, especially in immigrant communities that he alienated as interior minister during riots in October 2005, Sarkozy is being branded “our Bush” by some French voters.  And in most quarters in this country, that is anything but a compliment. While the U.S. president stands embattled in U.S. polls, he’s openly distained in conversations with French of most political stripes, who welcome American visitors but quickly want to know what they think of their president.

 

Our friends Mitch and Esther, discovered that this last weekend when they stopped at a farm in the Provence countryside between the villages of Trets and St-Zacharie. Four women, on an outing from the city of Marseille, arrived at about the same time and engaged our friends, a journalism professor and magazine editor, respectively, in a conversation, en francais, about politics.

 

“Do you follow French politics?” one woman asked.

 

“Yes,” Mitch replied, telling them that he knew about the top three candidates.

 

“In your country there are Republicans and Democrats?” she said, her question hanging over the goat cheese all of them had come to buy.

 

“We are Democrats,” Mitch replied and their faces lit up.

 

Then came the punch line. “Sarkozy,” the woman said, “is our Bush.”

 

In truth, this is an oversimplification. Certainly both men have staked positions as tough and uncompromising, pushing law-and-order credentials. But from there the similarities start to unravel (though Sarkozy has stolen a line from another notorious Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, reportedly saying Sunday that he represents France’s “silent majority.”) Sarkozy, for example, has spoken in support of a French version of affirmative action; a policy in the United States the Bush administration stands firmly against. And while Bush is the scion of a wealthy American oil family, Sarkozy was attacked by rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen as being less than worthy as a French leader because of his immigrant roots.

 

But image and reality can sometimes become one in a short and furious political race. And “Sarkozy is our Bush” could yet play a part in the presidential election outcome in this country, where many deeply despise America’s Iraq policies and distrust what they perceive to be an economic Darwinism in American capitalism. 

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.
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