THE TOP TWO candidates for the French presidency are in a dead heat as the campaign enters its final week. The electorate is at once divided and undecided, unsure whether to turn left or right to address the dual challenges of immigration and globalization.
Deep political cleavages are hardly unique to France; throughout Europe (and in the United States as well), the tensions caused by migrant flows and the job losses resulting from global competition are producing polarized societies and angry electorates.
But the stakes in the French election are particularly high. Having lost public confidence, the government of President Jacques Chirac has been in effective paralysis for the last two years, leaving both the European Union and French-American relations adrift.
With French voters increasingly weary of their political establishment, it is no accident that the two leading contenders are outsiders of sorts. Nicolas Sarkozy, the brash son of a Hungarian immigrant, has slowly burrowed his way into France's closed political elite to become the candidate of the center-right. Segolene Royal, the candidate of the center-left, punched the right tickets as she built her career, but still seemed to come from nowhere to wrest the Socialist Party candidacy from its male elders. She is the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency.
Sarkozy, who was minister of the interior until recently, is the man to beat. His main assets are his resolute style and tough stance on immigrants -- particularly the Muslim ones who now account for more than 10% of the population.
Although the proposal is still fuzzy, his call for a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity speaks directly to concerns on the right that immigrants are becoming radicalized, fomenting social unrest and threatening France's cultural identity. Sarkozy has persistently sought to appeal to voters who might stray to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the ever-present spokesman of the extreme right.
Paradoxically, Sarkozy's main asset is also his main liability. Many voters are scared of him, fearful that his exertions in the name of law, order and nationhood will cross the line, compromising basic liberties and France's civic traditions. Recently he has sought to soften his image.
Playing off Sarkozy's hard edges, Royal has cast herself as kinder and gentler -- the maternal defender of France's generous welfare state, promising to spare France the inequities and hardships of the unfettered market. She too has been unable to resist the allure of populism and patriotism, on occasion breaking into "La Marseillaise" at her rallies.
Royal's campaign has been short on substance and long on missteps -- in one recent gaffe, for instance, she suggested that the Taliban still rules Afghanistan, although it was ousted in 2001 -- prompting many to wonder whether she passes the competence test.
Both Sarkozy and Royal started off campaigning to the center but have since veered back to their bases. Immigration is pushing the right further right, while globalization is pushing the left further left. Neither candidate can afford to buck these trends; both need good turnout to ensure that they qualify for the second round. Unless a candidate wins a majority April 22, which appears unlikely, the top two move on to a runoff May 6.
As Sarkozy and Royal have abandoned the middle, a dark-horse candidate, Francois Bayrou, has thrived by campaigning to the center. And Le Pen's anti-immigrant credentials are enabling him to chip away at Sarkozy's base.
The surge in support for Bayrou and Le Pen is less a sign of their appeal than of the electorate's discontent with the lackluster campaigns of the front-runners. Without the backing of a major party, Bayrou is unlikely to make it to the second round. And if Le Pen survives the first round -- as he did in 2002 -- he would almost certainly be defeated May 6.
The domestic consequences of immigration and globalization have made for a very inward-looking campaign. None of the candidates have been willing to tackle the key foreign policy issues of the day, such as how to breathe new life into the stalled project of European integration or what to do about Europe's troubled partnership with the United States.
The EU has been stumbling ever since the French voted down the proposed European Constitution in a referendum in 2005. That rejection effectively constituted a vote of no confidence in Chirac, who had backed it staunchly. The government was enfeebled, which in turn left the EU without the French vision and leadership it sorely needs to guide it out of its doldrums.
The presidential aspirants have been similarly tongue-tied on relations with the U.S. The surge in anti-Americanism triggered by the Iraq war has subsided. But even Sarkozy, usually at ease with his pro-U.S. instincts, has of late steered clear of transatlantic issues lest he be seen as too close to the Bush administration.
Whoever wins, Washington is legitimately wondering what lies in store for French-American relations and whether the next government will help build a strong EU to which the U.S. can look for help in the Middle East and beyond.
As undecided voters choose this week from a group of candidates who have aroused little enthusiasm, the reality for the U.S. and the rest of Europe is clear: Who wins the French election is less important than whether the victor can transcend a divided nation to refashion a strong and effective government.