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France's Next President: Incumbent Or Socialist?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

This morning, voters in two European countries hit hard by the continent's crippling economic crisis are going to the polls. In a moment, we'll speak with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Greece. But first, we turn to France where incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy has been campaigning against the background of widespread discontent and a strong Socialist opponent, Francois Hollande.

For more on the election in France, I'm joined now by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley from Paris. Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we hear about this very strong dissatisfaction with Sarkozy. Where does that come from? What's that about?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, this cannot be underestimated, Rachel. There's just talk but he's divided this country. He is divided people during the last five years. For example, he held these debates on national identity and people said that has just stigmatized Muslims, and made people feel were either French or not so French. There's been a lot of anti-immigrant talk as he's trying to attract voters from the far right, which is also divided people, made them angry.

He's accused of being a president of the rich. And then, you know, he has this sort of aggressive, brash personality which can work in his favor, but also against them. And one episode he will never live down is he went to the state agriculture fair. I think it was four years ago. And there was a farmer who did want to shake his hand and he said, get lost, jerk - although he said it in worse language in French. And somebody picked it up on a cell phone.

Of course, it hit the Web and he has never lived that down. And now, Francois Hollande's campaign stickers, or the opposition campaign stickers say: Get lost, jerk. So they've turned out against him.

MARTIN: OK. So, Eleanor, France, we understand like much of the rest of Europe has suffered under the current economic crisis. But how has the economy played a role in the campaign in particular?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's also played a very good world because Sarkozy is taking all the blame for the economy. You know, the first time around, Sarkozy said I want you to judge me on my record. So unfortunately the record is a lot worse. Unemployment is up. Growth is down. The deficit is worse. And so, Hollande is saying exactly that. We're judging you on your economy, what you did for this economy.

It's sort of overlooked all the work needed to address the global crisis, to address Europe's debt crisis. You know, getting together with Merkozy and getting Europe together. That's sort of all overlooked now. Sarkozy is just being blamed for everything. And the socialists are even going so far as to say, you lost the triple-A status of the ratings agencies.

You know, Sarkozy supporters are like, as if the Socialists would've kept it. But it doesn't matter. Sarkozy was president, the economy is down. He is getting the blame for it.

MARTIN: So it's easy, I imagine, to place blame on Sarkozy. But does Hollande, is he putting out any real solutions? What are the planks of his platform, Eleanor?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the plank, the major plank of his economic platform is we need to add some growth to this pure dose of austerity. He said neither France nor Europe can get better on pure austerity. He wants to renegotiate a European austerity pact that Sarkozy put in place with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And he also wants to have public spending to create public sector jobs and public sector works in France to sort of jump start the economy.

He's not being totally irresponsible. He says he will balance the budget but that will be done by new taxes on the rich. So people are seeing this as a hopeful saying that there's going to be some spending, that may be a jumpstart in the economy could turn things around.

And then he keeps coming back to the saying of I'm going to restore France's honor and turn it back to its true values; getting back to equality, justice, fairness. I mean this return France to its honor again.

MARTIN: OK, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting on the election from Paris. Thanks so much, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.