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Sego vs. Sarko

An INTERNET VIDEO clip now appearing on French computer screens depicts presidential front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy fulfilling every Parisian’s nightmares. Like the Fairy Godmother from Disney’s “Cinderella” (and to the tune of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” sung in Hungarian to reflect Sarkozy’s immigrant roots), he waves his magic wand to twist the Eiffel Tower into the Golden Arches, transform the Louvre into Las Vegas and change the tricolor flag under the Arc de Triomphe into the Stars and Stripes. Quelle horreur!

Few things make a French politician more radioactive than the perception that he has too much affinity with the United States, which is why some of Sarkozy’s past admiring statements about American economic success are coming back to haunt him. On Sunday, the center-right interior minister faces a historic runoff election against Socialist Segolene Royal that will mark a distinct change for France, regardless of the winner, because both represent a welcome new generation of political leadership after more than a quarter of a century under Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand.

Sarkozy is like a French Rudolph W. Giuliani -- tough on crime, blunt, cosmopolitan, notoriously irritable. His platform is largely economic, with a distinct tinge of Anglo-American-style capitalism to it. He wants to cut France’s welfare state and taxes and liberalize the country’s 35-hour workweek. He has visited Washington and dared to be photographed with President Bush.

Royal, by contrast, is a more soothing and undefined figure who mixes her undeliverable socialist promises with a sharp disdain for Washington. “We will not go to get down on bended knees before George Bush!” she proclaimed at a rally last month.

Yet it would be a mistake to expect France to become more aligned with the U.S. under Sarkozy. Like nearly all French politicians, he deeply opposes the White House’s Iraq policy, and, in what may soon prove dangerous, he favors pulling French troops out of Afghanistan.

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When it comes to trade, both candidates are at heart French. Which is to say, protectionist. It’s very unlikely that either would seek to dismantle the agricultural supports that have blocked progress on a world free-trade pact under the World Trade Organization’s Doha round.

The contest between “Sego and Sarko” has attracted strong interest internationally because it represents such a stark choice: a nurturing mother figure who would protect the country from the forces of globalization, or a stern father who would crack the system open, if just a little, to make France more competitive. Whether either would bring noticeable change to France’s external relations is an open question.


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