Sarko, Ségo, or Bayrou?

What you need to know about the French elections.

Ségolène Royal

France is about to enter a new era. With 74-year-old President Jacques Chirac—the last of Charles de Gaulle’s protégés—retiring after 12 years in office, a new generation is set to take over. The first round of voting, on April 22, will be a three-way tussle involving Socialist Ségolène Royal, conservative former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and moderate François Bayrou. (Far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen is currently polling at about 15 percent.)

Eight other candidates—including Communists Olivier Besancenout and Marie-George Buffet, Green Dominique Voynet, and anti-globalization activist José Bové—will join the four front-runners in Round 1. If no candidate gets 50 percent or more, the top two vote-getters will advance to Round 2 in May.

More than ever before, this campaign is long on style and short on substance. All three main candidates have attempted to boost their popularity with puffy, best-selling manifestos. Bayrou hawked Project of Hope, which is almost exactly like that other book, except Bayrou is not black, not American, and not running for president … of the United States. Royal wrote Now, while Sarkozy laid out his personal and political agenda in Together.

Sarkozy has also taken advantage of his country’s current—and très American—obsession with its politicians’ love lives by publishing Testimony, which details, among other topics, his stormy relationship with his unfaithful wife, Cécilia. (Testimony is the only one of the main candidates’ books available in English.) A few romans à clef delving into the Sarkozys’ marriage have also become best sellers in France.

Meanwhile, rumors are flying that Royal has broken with her longtime love (but not hubby), Socialist Party Secretary General François Hollande. Since she has already been plagued by some laughable gaffes—such as seeming to call for Quebec’s independence and believing the Taliban still rule Afghanistan—more personal revelations can only reinforce the media’s perception that Royal is not a “serious” candidate.

This election cycle, French voters seem to be turning to the Internet in greater numbers. You can find YouTube videos full of “macaca” moments à la française. Smart blogs, including one written by the smoldering grandson of former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, cleverly call out the candidates’ faux pas, while this silly time-waster makes an animated Sarkozy disco on your command.

French musicians are jumping in as well, joining together in a sort of “Rap the Vote” initiative designed to increase political involvement among France’s disaffected youth. The effort seems to be working: Voter registration is up in depressed areas most affected by last year’s violent riots, double the national average.

But beyond the campaign fluff of best sellers, blogs, and blunders, something deeper is happening in French politics.

Every night, Les Guignols de l’Info(picture TheDaily Show performed by puppets) lampoons the increasingly polarized and vicious tone of the election and the fact that politicians are playing nonstop to voters’ baser instincts.

Polls show that by far the most important issue for voters is high unemployment. But instead, candidates are focusing on crime and immigration, the traditional obsessions of the far right. At a time when conservatives are gaining support, those on the center and left are looking for ways to avoid the debacle of 2002’s presidential election.

In the first round of that poll, there were so many leftist candidates running and so many apathetic nonvoters that ultraconservative Le Pen was able to slide into the run-off, where Chirac handily defeated him. This time, the heavyweight parties (Socialists and Sarkozy’s UMP) picked their candidates in advance of the first round, cutting down on discord and strengthening their hand, but also stifling debate.

Moreover, after rioting by Arab youth spread from Paris across the country in 2005, the political establishment realized that Le Pen is no longer on the fringe. With his 15 percent poll numbers, he has forced both Sarkozy and Royal to pull their rhetoric and policies to the right.

Everyone is pandering to conservatives. Sarkozy says he doesn’t want to leave far-right voters with Le Pen as their only option; however, he also wants to woo those who are less conservative but equally concerned with security and crime. To that end, Sarkozy has called for the creation of the ominous-sounding “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity,” which would ensure that minority immigrants become sufficiently “French” after arriving in the country.

Riots at the end of March at Paris’ Gare du Nord train station only highlighted the issue. Police say a man without a subway ticket punched an officer, sparking an hourslong melee, while youths involved in the violence say authorities struck first, roughing up a young North African. However it started, Royal’s spokesman said the incident showed the lack of trust between the police and the people. Sarkozy attacked his opponent’s obliging tone, accusing Royal of “moral bankruptcy” and being soft on crime.

Trying to recoup her image, Royal reached rightward, encouraging people to learn the French national anthem and display French flags on Bastille Day. The International Herald Tribune reports that she wants to put first-time criminal offenders in “military camps”—something, it is safe to say, that has never before been on the Socialist agenda.

Yet in the midst of all this vitriol, France’s crime-and-immigration scare seems little more than a red herring. Arab youth rioted last year because they are unemployed—not because they are “scum,” as Sarkozy controversially called them. France’s hopelessly outdated economic and labor policies—including a strict 35-hour workweek and restrictions on hiring and firing employees—have crippled the country’s job market for years.

Sarkozy has pledged economic “tough love” in the form of relaxing the 35-hour workweek, giving tax incentives for people to work more, and reducing corporate taxes. But he hasn’t made these much-needed and overdue changes a main focus of his campaign. No French politician really has the couilles to overhaul the system completely. Why? Guess what young, white French voters did the last time the government made a serious effort to change those labor policies? They rioted.

But it’s much easier to whip up fear of a criminal, immigrant bogeyman than to make the hard choices necessary to get him a job.