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French President Jacques Chirac

French President Jacques Chirac


PARIS - With French voters set to choose a successor to President Jacques Chirac on Sunday and British Prime Minister Tony Blair expected to give notice within days that he will shortly be vacating No. 10 Downing St., a new cast of characters is preparing for its star turn on the European political stage.


The French election in particular heralds a major break with the past for a nation that has known only two presidents - Chirac and Francois Mitterrand - in the last 25 years.


Whatever the outcome, the winner will be the first French president to have been born after World War II. The center-right front-runner, Nicolas Sarkozy, is 52; his Socialist Party rival, Segolene Royal, is 53. Either would be the youngest occupant of the Elysee Palace since 1974, when Valery Giscard d’Estaing became president at 48.


Royal would make history as the first woman to win the French presidency, but the polls favor Sarkozy, a former interior minister in the Chirac government and the son of a Hungarian immigrant. In the latest Ipsos/Dell poll this week, Sarkozy was firmly in the lead, favored by 53.5 percent of respondents, compared with 46.5 percent for Royal.


“No matter who wins, we are going to have major changes,” said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the Center on America and Trans-Atlantic Relations, a Paris research institute.


Both candidates claim to be modernizers. Throughout the campaign Sarkozy has called for a dramatic rupture with past policies that have stifled economic growth and made it difficult to shake off decades of high unemployment.


Royal, too, seems determined to move her Socialist Party away from some of its more entrenched ideologies, much the way Blair reinvented Britain’s Labour Party. She has positioned herself as the candidate of safe change, according to Parmentier.


“People know we need more flexibility in the economy,” he said. “Most people believe that in general terms. But when it comes to applying it, when it comes to your job or your spouse’s job or your children’s job - then things look a little different.”


The announcement of Blair’s long-anticipated departure, which could come as early as next week, will set off a six-week leadership contest within the Labour Party culminating in a vote that is all but certain to confirm Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, as the next prime minister.


Blair has been the most successful politician in his party’s history. He won three successive elections, which none of his Labor predecessors managed, and his 10 years in office is second only to Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years among 20th Century prime ministers. Despite his low approval ratings at the moment, he will be a tough act to follow.


Brown, arguably the most accomplished manager of the economy in Britain’s history, is likely to provide continuity of substance but a drastic departure in style.


A dour and cerebral Scot, Brown lacks Blair’s flair for the political stage. Most analysts assume he will distance himself from the Bush administration. Certainly, he will keep enough distance so as not to be seen as President Bush’s “poodle,” a label that damaged his predecessor.


But Brown is a committed Atlanticist who will preserve Britain’s special relationship with the United States. In a comment piece written for the mass circulation Sun, Brown said Britain would continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with America in the war on terror.


“Between justice and evil, humanity and barbarism ... no one can afford to be neutral or disengaged,” he wrote.


The French see things differently, and the relationship with the U.S. has been a contentious issue in the French campaign.


At times, Royal has appeared to be running against George Bush rather than Sarkozy.


She drew enthusiastic cheers at a campaign rally in Toulouse when she declared that France will not go down on her knee before Bush. She and other French officials have skewered Sarkozy for visiting the White House last September and especially for telling the Americans that France had been arrogant during the buildup to the Iraq war.


Sarkozy, whose half-brother is a U.S. citizen, has forthrightly declared himself a friend of America and an unabashed admirer of many aspects of the U.S. economic model.


He has called for more flexibility in the 35-hour workweek, suggesting tax breaks for those who work longer hours. He has praised America’s work ethic and meritocracy. He also has said that he wants the French to develop more of a taste for risk-taking and entrepreneurship.


But too much of that could cost him votes.


The French see America as a society that has become profoundly inegalitarian, said Parmentier of the Center on America. They see it as a brutal, Darwinian society in which the weak are not protected.

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