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Une nouvelle direction pour la France?

Andrew Coates looks at the rival platforms for the Presidency

'Vile', Liar': warmth is not lacking between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal during the French Presidential campaign. After a mini-riot at the Gare du Nord (the occasion for these words) stark differences arose between the right's former Minister of the Interior (UMP) and the left's standard bearer (Parti Socialiste). Sarkozy's accused the left of backing law-breakers. Royal called for an 'ordre just' (fair society). Crime, and national identity have been at the heart of the debate. A surge in the centrist, François Bayrou's (UDF) popularity, (the Centre has hovered at 20% in many previous contests), may make this a three horse race. On the far-right, Le Pen, who won more than the Socialist Lionel Jospin in 2002, remains popular (12% in opinion polls). Who will reach the run-off election, on 6th May, remains open. But the Left is certainly in with a fighting chance.

The Parti Socialiste's decision to present Ségolène Royal as their candidate was a bold move. It is the first time a woman has a serious prospect of becoming France's Head of State. After announcing her commitment to 'participative democracy' and 'people's juries', to add in-put to the public domain, Royal got off to shaky start. Ill-judged comments backing Quebec nationalism gave an impression of inexperience. But, helped by a professional team (including key figures from the left of PS, such as Julien Dray), she soon began to take the campaign in her stride.

Her policies aim to reduce unemployment (still around 8.6%), with 'first chance' contracts for young people, reinforcing public services, a more liberal approach to the 'sans papiers' (illegal immigrants), and community policing rather than Sarkozy's repression. Recently Ségolène has come out for a 'Sixth Republic', making Arnaud Montebourg, of the left tendency, Nouveau Monde, a spokesperson. This would distribute power from the President to the National Assembly, a dose of proportional representation, and a 'charter of secularism'. Described by some as a 'Blair' (who has not extended his friendship), Royal has appealed to a populist audience: waving the flag and getting public meetings to sing La Marseillaise. However, the Socialists' 'synthèse' (programme) proposes to renationalise the electricity company (EDF), has ambitious plans to extend workers' rights, intervene in the economy, resist market liberalisation, and build social housing. Stronger powers for deputies would make these democratic socialist objectives more feasible.

Nicolas Sarkozy shows no bounds in his admiration for both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. His programme could be described as classical Thatcherism: a strong state and a free economy. It's the former, a crack-down on crime and immigration, celebrating French identity, curbs on strikes in the public sector that has received the most emphasis. He has had many years in office to tackle law-breaking; many consider him responsible for the 2005 violence in France's run-down 'banlieues' (suburbs). Sarkozy imports from the UK plans for the sale of council houses, withdrawal of family allowances from irresponsible parents, compulsory work-schemes for the unemployed, and 'select' immigration. To free up the market he wishes to cut civil service numbers, to reduce taxes and to involve private companies in public service provision. He wishes to weaken secularism, financing religious institutions, notably Mosques. In short, Sarkozy stands for the 'rupture libèrale' (neo-liberal turn) that President Chirac, for all his Ministers' privatisations, never fully managed.

François Bayrou offers something in-between these two figures, a 6th Republic, but a liberal economy. A self-styled 'tractor man' he is visibly tiring of the rigours of the campaign trail. To the left of Royal there are no less than five alternative candidates, fractiously squabbling. Only one, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire's Olivier Besancenot, even approaches 5% in the opinion polls. The Green's Dominique Voynet is barely visible.

There is real loathing for Sarkozy amongst a wide tranche of the population. Remembering the disastrous 2002 elections many on the left are tempted, even if they have reservations about Royal, by the 'vote utile' - the useful vote. Every utterance by Sarkozy makes that feeling grow.