By Yves DuchaudSpecial to CSMS MagazinePARIS – French conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, by all account, seems to be poised to win Sunday’s second round of election in France. In a highly televised debate last night, the two candidates laid out their distinct visions before the French voters. Segolene Royal’s soft talking appeared to be no match to her rival Nicolas Sarkozy who, according to most opinion polls, is favored to win on Sunday. While most media judged Wednesday’s debate a draw, several polls showed 53 percent of viewers found Sarkozy more convincing in the debate against 31 percent for Royal. The debate was fierce at some point. “Royal was surprisingly pugnacious in taking on a generally restrained Sarkozy but neither candidate delivered any of the kind of lethal one-liners or gaffes likely to sway voters decisively, claims the BBC. “Each camp will celebrate its champion and deride the adversary,” said the daily Le Parisien. An opinion poll published late on Wednesday put Sarkozy’s support at 53.5 percent against 46.5 for Royal, with 86 percent saying they will not change their minds before the May 6 vote. Royal denied the race was as good as over. “Opinion polls don’t decide elections,” she told France Inter radio. The directors of her campaign team issued a statement, denouncing the Opinionway poll, the first issued on the debate, and asked “Who profits from a survey like this?” Sarkozy seems to have plaid well into the minds of many voters by evoking “the great France that is suffering,” while he implicitly calls for the elimination of all delinquents. Delinquents here mean the minorities (Blacks and Arabs in particular.) France is the second largest country by area in continental Europe, after Ukraine. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Andorra, and Spain. Two-thirds of the country is made up of mountains and hills with the Alps, Pyrenees, Vosges and Massif Central forming the largest ranges. Mont Blanc in the Alps is the highest mountain in Europe. Farms and forests cover 48 million hectares – 82% – of the total area of mainland France. France has a number of territories overseas – remnants of a past empire. Together with mainland France and Corsica, they make up 26 administrative regions. It is further divided into 100 “departements”, four of which – French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion – are outside Europe. France emerged from the dark years of World War II and German occupation when it was liberated in 1945. General de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, returned from London and formed an alliance with former resistance leaders to set up a provisional government. In the 1950s France went through a painful period of decolonisation, culminating in a war of independence in Algeria, which paved the way for many of Sub Saharan African colonies to be free of French rule. De Gaulle redesigned the constitution and the Fifth Republic was born in 1959. The president was given a seven-year term of office (now five years), the right to call new parliamentary elections and a strong role in implementing policy. When de Gaulle stood down in 1969 he was succeeded by his right-hand man, Georges Pompidou, who died suddenly in 1974. The political parties are: Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) – centre right coalition, Parti Socialiste (PS), Parti Communiste Français (PCF), Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF), Les Verts the greens, Rassemblement Pour la France (RPF), Democratie, Liberale (DL), Parti Radical de Gauche (PRG), Mouvement des Citoyens (MDC), and Front National. In the 2002 presidential elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Front Party, shocked France when he finished in second place in the first round. Lionel Jospin, the main left-wing presidential contender whom Le Pen knocked out, decided to retire from politics and threw his support behind incumbent president Chirac. Chirac won with an overwhelming 82.2% of the vote in the second round.
Agriculture is still one of France’s major industries but the economy is relying more on service industries and manufacturing. France is the most popular country in the world among tourists, receiving about 75 million visitors a year and has the third largest income in the world from tourism. But France’s economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates – 9.8% – of any European country. Many large companies, banks and insurers have been partially or fully privatised and stakes in Air France, France Telecom, Renault, and defense company Thales have been sold off. But the government still controls key assets such as power, public transport and defense industries – sources of national pride. There continues to be a strong will towards social equity, with laws protecting workers and high public spending on public health and welfare. Public finances are coming under strain from the pension system and rising healthcare costs and the tax burden is one of the highest in Europe, at nearly 50% of GDP in 2005. Rigid employment laws and the tax burden make it difficult for businesses to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. France can still boast one of Europe’s highest rates of female employment. Some 81% of women aged between 25 and 49 are in work, including three-quarters of those with two children. In 2006 young people protested against employment reformsFor hundreds of years, artists, writers and philosophers – both French and foreign – have thrived in a nation that prides itself on its cultural heritage. France has long had a high level of immigration. There are now 4.9m immigrants in France and the French Muslim population is estimated to be the largest in Western Europe. Many live in the suburbs in low-standard social housing, often in tower blocks known as HLMs. Unemployment is high among these communities and crime is a problem on the estates. In many cases the most disaffected people are the second or third generation immigrants who were born in France. A series of riots began in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in October 2005, following the deaths of two teenagers attempting to hide from police. Unrest quickly spread to other parts of the city and within days, the violence had spread to other towns and cities across France. Some observers have seen the riots as proof that France’s policy of “assimilation” of immigrants and their children is not working. This policy is essentially trying to make immigrants “French” rather than the British policy of multiculturalism. It has its roots in the French state concept of everyone being equal before the law, that people should be treated and judged as individuals rather than as part of a particular community. This concept also means that there is no collection of data on ethnic minorities by the state and that businesses cannot ask job candidates about their ethnic origin.Note: Yves Duchaud lives and works in Paris. Christine Jean-Pierre also contributed to this report.Also see Segolene Royal http://www.csmsmagazine.org/news.php?pg=20070430I481