A Paradoxical French Electorate

The three leading contenders make their final appearances on the campaign trail, as François Bayrou, left, greets supporters during a political meeting in Rouen, west of Paris; Ségolène Royal waves to a crowd in the capital; and Nicolas Sarkozy rides a horse during a visit to a ranch in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, southeastern France.
The three leading contenders make their final appearances on the campaign trail, as François Bayrou, left, greets supporters during a political meeting in Rouen, west of Paris; Ségolène Royal waves to a crowd in the capital; and Nicolas Sarkozy rides a horse during a visit to a ranch in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, southeastern France. (By Michael Sawyer -- Associated Press)
By John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 21, 2007

PARIS -- Guillaume Beaucheron did not become a train engineer because he loved toy trains as a boy. He did it for the good pay, short work hours and early retirement offered by France's state-owned railway company. And now, he says, that is all under threat.

"In the past 20 or 30 years, the government has failed at everything," Beaucheron complained. It has buckled under to European Union rules that jeopardize and delay his retirement, while the Internet and automation have eliminated railway jobs by the day.

And so when he goes to vote in Sunday's French presidential election, said Beaucheron, 36, he'll back a candidate who will fight globalization, protect jobs from encroaching technology and defend his retirement plan, which allows him to quit working at age 56. He declined to specify his candidate choice, citing his powerful labor union's neutral position in the campaign.

"We need change," Beaucheron said, his thinning brown hair tied in a skinny ponytail. "We need to get the country moving -- more jobs, pay raises for everyone."

Beaucheron's demand for change on the one hand, and his absolute fear of it on the other, reflect the country's core ambivalence going into Sunday's election. The three front-running candidates embody this paradox, too. While each campaigns as an agent of change, few people here believe that whoever wins a five-year term in the Elysee Palace will tackle the country's serious ills.

Beset by a stagnant economy, enormous public debt and high unemployment, millions of French citizens fear the demise of the vastly expensive social welfare system that has given them 35-hour workweeks, month-long summer vacations, free health care and liberal retirement benefits.

"We like talking about the French Revolution and the abolition of privileges, but privileges have just changed hands," said Laurent Jouve, a 45-year-old goat farmer from the southeastern French village of Chateauneuf-de-Bordette. "Nowadays, everyone is attached to their small privilege, their 35 hours, their benefits. That is why reforms are hard to implement in France. Everyone wants change, but only if it affects their neighbor."

The common view here that France is in decline belies continuing clout abroad. The country remains a key U.S. trading partner and diplomatic ally. A nuclear power and NATO ally with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, France has been a major partner in the U.S. drive to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions and rebuild Afghanistan. With its deep ties to former colonies in the Middle East, it plays a key role in peacekeeping efforts, notably in Lebanon.

"France is not the great power it used to be," said Philip Gordon, a European specialist at the Brookings Institution. But with its leadership on Iran, its troops in Afghanistan, its peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, and its U.N. and NATO roles, "we discovered over the past couple of years how much we need France and our other European allies for international legitimacy and support."

But at home, questions about jobs and the social welfare system dominate the race. "This French strategy doesn't work anymore -- we have immobility and we don't want to change, we don't want to adapt to globalization, we don't want to decrease public expenditures and reduce taxes," said economist Marc Touati. The candidates have largely declined to debate real solutions, he said, and have pandered to the belief that "we're French, and we're the exception."

Increasing numbers of French young people and members of the business elite in recent years have voted with their feet, moving abroad in search of job opportunities, tax havens and a climate that rewards risk-taking entrepreneurs and does not limit workers to 35 hours a week.

France has had only two presidents in 26 years, and the desire for new, younger leadership stems partly from anger at outgoing president Jacques Chirac, 74, who served for 12 years and never delivered on promises of reform. Instead, his term coincided with a growing sense of malaise so pronounced that analysts gave it a name: "declinism."


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