April 23, 2007 6:38 pm

France deserves a contest of ideas

Sunday’s electoral uprising in France was, as Le Monde pointed out, a clear message that the French are determined to regain control of their future. The two presidential finalists this mountain of votes disgorged, the neo-Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist Ségolène Royal, have not so far shown they can rise to the mood of the country. Now is the time to show they can articulate its still inchoate desire for change.

The first round started promisingly. Mr Sarkozy spoke of a rupture and of a smaller state where enterprise and work would be rewarded. Ms Royal’s changement backed high public spending but also flexible labour markets.

But the campaign was overshadowed by the freak result of 2002 when a self-indulgent protest vote let Jean-Marie Le Pen of the xenophobe National Front beat Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, out of the second round. Mr Sarkozy’s forays into far-right territory deflated Mr Le Pen’s vote but went so deep they raise alarming questions about his rightwing populist streak. Ms Royal’s courtship of the left lacked confidence and soon turned into a laundry list of unfunded and incoherent spending plans. As a consequence, nearly one in five voters improbably saw François Bayrou, the lacklustre centre-right candidate, as an alternative.

Nevertheless, the French have pushed extremists to the extremes and, after decades of muttering Non to everything, have rediscovered the power of Oui. Mr Sarkozy’s vote haul is close to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s score in 1974; Ms Royal’s tally nearly matches François Mitterrand’s total in 1981. Both have platforms for change.

Which one of them wins largely depends on how the Bayrou vote divides. At the moment, it tilts appreciably more to the right. Ms Royal has a lot of ground to make up, particularly if Mr Sarkozy continues to pass himself off as a bit of a poacher as well as a gamekeeper.

Over the next two weeks, France needs and deserves a clear contest of ideas. It needs Sarko and Ségo to present coherent programmes that address the challenges facing the country: the size and role of the state; the funding of welfare; how to create more wealth and new jobs, especially for the young; the need to upgrade education; the level of farm subsidies; and France’s position in the European Union and the world.

France has avoided confronting these issues in good part because its political elite has opted to pander to and patronise the electorate rather than have an adult debate with it. On Sunday, French voters started that conversation.

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