04/23/2007 10:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The French Elections: Beauty and...the Beast?

In an amazing turnout -- the largest in 40 years -- nearly 85% of French voters went to the polls yesterday in the first round of presidential elections. Their vote decided which two candidates, out of a field of twelve, would face each other in the second and final round two weeks from now.

Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy were always considered the front-runners, but the emergence of Francois Bayrou, positioning himself between socialist Royal and conservative Sarkozy, threw a new element into the race. And there was Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the radical far-right, trying for the fifth time to win the presidency. (His stunning score five years ago catapulted him into the second round, but French voters came to their senses and re-elected Jacques Chirac.)

Reading up to this point, you can easily identify two big differences between elections here and in the United States. First of all, there are a dozen -- yes, a dozen -- qualifying political parties, ranging from Le Pen's radical Front National to the ecological Greens to the Trotskyites to the now nearly moribund Communist Party, which lost its punch and pertinence after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The other obvious difference is the two-round system. This makes a lot of sense. It gives all the contenders a chance to be heard, and allows voters to express themselves without committing to a final decision. (It is a truism that the French vote the first round with their hearts and the second round with their wallets.)

There are other differences, too, that are in sharp contrast to American politics. Campaign funding is much smaller, and the campaign itself is much shorter. There is no electioneering on Saturday, one day before the elections, which gives everybody a rest and lessens the chance for last-minute scams and polling.

Now, with the first round over, the race between Royal and Sarkozy will begin in earnest -- a race that has been abbreviated to "Ségo" vs. "Sarko". Politically and stylistically, they are very different. Ségo, who garnered 25.8% in yesterday's vote, is a 53-year old mother of four who lives with, but is not married to, the man who is their father. (This does not shock the French.) She is very attractive, very charming, and almost maternalistic in her approach. She says she wants for France what she would want for her children: protection, security, respect, She rails against the inured bastions of "power and wealth", and the deficiencies in the justice system, the media, the government, and the public service sector. She would raise the minimum wage, preserve worker safeguards, and subsidize youth jobs. In her victory speech last night, she promised to restore pride in French history and values, to "reverse the decline" by giving up a system "that no longer works", and to "make our country smile again".

Sarko, 52, got 31.1% in yesterday's vote. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he is seen by his opponents (and even some supporters) as ambitious, arrogant, and impulsive. A strong rallying cry has been "Anything But Sarkozy", He is much more pragmatic, and much more the political animal than his rival. He eagerly shook the hand of President Bush for a photo-op, and seems inclined to mend fences with the U.S. He has been stressing the need for economic reform, by relaxing labor laws and cutting taxes. But he alienated many young and immigrant voters when, in 2005, he called the rioters in the suburbs "scum".

Both candidates, for the first time in France, are of the post-war generation. Neither one has much international experience. Both are talking about the need for change, but in different ways. And, as we all know, "plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme chose". (The more things change, the more things stay the same.)

The predictions for the final round now give Sarko 54% and Ségo 46%. But the deciding factor may actually be Bayrou. With 18.4% of the vote in this first round, he may hold the key to a swing vote, depending on where his supporters go. He will be holding a press conference on Wednesday, and may announce then whether he backs the beautiful Ségo or the beastly Sarko.