Feature

The first-round winner is change.

The week's news at a glance.

French elections

France has rediscovered optimism, said Guillaume Malaurie in Le Nouvel Observateur. The two presidential candidates who survived the first round of voting this week also happen to be the two with the most positive messages. Center-rightist Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal—affectionately dubbed Sarko and Ségo—both campaigned on agendas of change. They will face each other in a runoff in May. Could this be the end of our depressive phase, when all we could say was no? In recent years, we French have said no to a constitution for the European Union and no to political coalitions. This week, we said yes: yes to reform, whether from the right, left, or center; a big yes to Sarkozy, who took 31.1 percent of the vote in the first round; and a “substantial, yet measured” yes to Royal, who got 25.8 percent. The biggest winner may have been the political process itself: The turnout was an enthusiastic 85 percent.French voters, it would seem, are growing up, said Jean-Marie Colombani in Le Monde. Typically, the first round of a presidential election is the protest round—a chance for voters to air dissatisfactions by supporting a fringe candidate they wouldn’t really want as president. The subsequent runoff between the top two vote getters is the real race. But in the last election, in 2002, so many voters gave their protest vote to the extreme-right xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen that he actually made it into the runoff with then incumbent Jacques Chirac. Chastened, the electorate was more careful this time. “In shunning the demagogues and choosing the candidate of rupture”—Sarkozy’s motto—“and the candidate of shifting”—Royal’s—“the French have declared themselves ready to act.”

There’s still a third power to reckon with, said Arnaud Leparmentier, also in Le Monde. Centrist Francois Bayrou took 18.6 percent in the first round, for a respectable third-place finish. His supporters will make the difference, and Ségo and Sarko will spend the next two weeks wooing them. For Sarko, the tough-talking interior minister who cracked down hard on rioting youths, “the key is to make voters forget his flirtation with the far right” and reassure them that he’s not a monster. Attracting converts will be harder for Ségo, who positioned herself so far to the left that she essentially opened the field for a centrist candidate to emerge. Voters have serious doubts about her mastery of economic issues. Her best hope may lie with the large contingent of voters who’ll choose “anyone but Sarko.”

This is starting to look like an American election, said Philippe Gélie in Le Figaro. The candidates played to their bases in the first round, as they do in a U.S. primary. Now that only two remain, each is “running toward the center.” That’s a departure for France—but a welcome one. We’ve had enough of squabbling partisanship. A centrist president could restore the “domestic peace and national unity” that modern France has lacked.

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