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French Election Marks A Fork In The Road


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The French presidential runoff is tomorrow. President Nicolas Sarkozy and his opponent Socialist candidate Francois Hollande represent two different visions for their country.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: If you want to understand what this French election is all about, you just needed to be in Paris on May Day. May 1st is Europe's Labor Day. No one went to work. Everyone, it seemed, poured into the streets with their hopes and fears about the future.



BEARDSLEY: It began in the morning where supporters of the far-right National Front Party rallied around their candidate, Marine Le Pen. She placed third in the first round, with nearly 20 percent of the vote. But Le Pen advised her supporters to cast a blank protest ballot on Sunday, calling both Sarkozy and Hollande puppets of the European Union. The crowd rallied around a gilded statue of Joan of Arc in full body armor, mounted on her steed. The Catholic patron saint of France represents traditional values people here say are being lost, largely due to immigration.

Yves Crubellier is with his family.

YVES CRUBELLIER: (Through Translator) We're here for our children's future. Our parents and grandparents fought to have rights like retirement benefits and health care. And today, it's all jeopardized by the parasites who come here and have no rights here but we give them everything.


PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Not far from the statue of Jeanne d'Arc, mainstream conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy spoke to his supporters at a rally near the Eiffel Tower, just at the edge of Paris' wealthy 16th Arrondissement. This crowd is mostly well dressed and well-off. People here say Sarkozy has done a good job given the circumstances. They say France needs a strong president like him to compete in a globalized world.

Lionel Boutin and his young daughter wave French flags.

LIONEL BOUTIN: (Through Translator) I will be very worried if Hollande wins. The future will be difficult because he'll align himself with the far left. Taxes and public spending will rise, they'll give more handouts. You have to work to deserve the good things that France has to offer.


BEARDSLEY: A far different scene unfolds in working-class eastern Paris. A traditional May Day parade of workers, unions and families snakes its way through the streets. People here feel that things have gone horribly wrong in France under Sarkozy. They say unbridled capitalism and greed are killing honest workers, and that Sarkozy is a pal of the rich. Worse than that, he's divided the nation and compromised justice and equality.

Edwy Plenel, former editor of Le Monde newspaper says he deplores Sarkozy's anti-immigrant rhetoric in an attempt to attract far-right voters.

EDWY PLENEL: With Mr. Sarkozy, there is now officially racism, Xenophobia against Muslim, against migrants. For me the 6th of May, it's a Democratic choice. Yes or no to racism, to Xenophobia, to authoritarianism, to a sort of monster, a political monster in Europe.


BEARDSLEY: The size and confidence of this crowd is impressive. Francois Hollande is their candidate and they say he will take France in a new direction beginning Sunday night.


BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.