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4 May 2007

The Rumble in the Jungle

Ding ding, round 11. The marathon title bout between the two French heavyweights is close to finishi

By Darren Straker

“Step right up, step right up.” Billed as the heavyweight show down for this pre-election debate, this had everything – accepted heavy weight, bruisers favourite, an outsider with a south paw jab that would knock out an elephant, but out of form,…how would it pan out?

Like 20 million other viewers I strapped myself in and waited for the bell – Sarko’s George Foremen verses the incumbent Royal’s Muhammad Ali (the Muslim analogies abound); Ali had a plan to take the wind out of the sails of Foreman, no-one thought he’d pull it off; not even Ali.

Right verses Left. The pundits had positioned themselves on the various strategies: short jabs verse heavy weight slugging-who’d win?….using a mindless pugilistic sport as an analogy isn’t going to win any favours with an intelligent audience, but it illustrates a good point- people want their side to win; and in order for that sort of prescient psychological shift to occur, opinions have to be formed and substantiated, and quel horreur – even voiced. I have to admit, that as hardened as I am to French indifference, that came as a (pleasant) surprise.

The Guardian had a leader this week ‘Sarkozy is Frances’ Reagan’; interesting, as one French colleague said ‘the Sandinistas must be bricking themselves’. Bad comparison, but an amusing retort.

For the first time this week, several French friends dropped their guard and announced their voting intentions – from colleagues, acquaintances, work associates, people in bars – everyone – it was clear: the split is LEFT or RIGHT, no hesitation, no arm waving, no obstrufication, or general ‘comme ci comme ca laize faire shrugs- the majority,from this vantage point, are with Royal (not 100%, but pretty close).

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That leads to the question – Why? This is the question that has perplexed this interesting country for the previous couple of weeks. In other countries – western democracies – voting is either on policies, political persuasion or personal choice on issues, bloody mindlessness or habit- for the French it has become a question of how do they move forward.

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The French understand the underlying choice that’s on offer – stability in the form of economic and social equality, favourable interest rates, house prices, job opportunities and so on verses social unrest, inequality and segregation. That’s slightly simplistic, but not off the mark. The type of short sharp shock measures exemplified by Sarkozy are worrying. Royal offers the same choice, but without the immediacy of the unknown; in the short term at least. As Tony Blair shuffles stage left, the comparisons are interesting.

The radio stations – bastions of debate that normally guarantees a good snooze after 10 minutes of listening – not unlike BBC radio 2 – are alive with conjecture and opinion, not necessarily missing from daily life here; but for the first time in quite a while the debate is about real issues- integration, social reform, economic policy, economic reforms…the basic and underlying point is – where is France going?

Where was the far right in all of this? Good point. Le Pen sends a dictum to all of his supporters not to vote- well, that’s democracy in action. We’ll participate when there’s something in it for ‘the cause’, but when the lights come back on and we’re no longer part of the democratic process we’ll abstain. Thank you, those 11% of votes wont count. If you believe in the process of participating in a democracy vote, if you choose abstention, you’re not part of the process…it would be interesting to get the BNP’s reaction to this.

From this vantage point, the general voting pattern is established. It’s now a question of how the voting numbers stack up on the weekend. I was not convinced during the first round that any of the candidates had anything different to add to to the situation – Bayrou was different and non partisan. He held an outsiders charm that typified a new type of French voter.

With the backs to wall now, the two slugging it out offer two different and distinct versions of what France could be in the future; as an old fashioned socialist, I’m backing Royal; like Ali in that eight round, Foreman wasn’t out for count, he just made too many errors looking at his corner for direction; I hope the same happens this weekend.

Le week end is full of promise..depending on who you’ve backed