05/03/2007 06:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The French Elections: The Gender Gap

Vive la différence!

In a televised debate Wednesday evening, Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy sparred for two-and-a-half hours about the issues closest to their compatriots' hearts: work and wages, unemployment, cost of living. Next in importance were questions dealing with social security benefits, education, and immigration. The European Community and foreign policy got barely 15 minutes, near the very end! And there was no discussion of U.S. relations or the Iraq war.

You may blame it on the moderators (two of France's most prominent newscasters) who didn't direct the debate but instead watched the clock scrupulously so that both candidates had exactly the same amount of air time.....down to the last minute. To the record audience of 30 million, this must have seemed very much like the delicate timing of a soccer match, with a few minutes now and then for time out.

Clearly, the difference between the two candidates rests not so much in the ends as in the means. Both want to boost employment, reduce the national debt, encourage French industry and research, and deal with problems related to delinquency and violence. But Sarkozy would attack the problems head-on, implementing existing policies and strengthening existing institutions. Royal, however, speaks of "dialogue with the social partners" (business, labor unions, educators, etc.) in order to find new solutions through consensus.

There are two areas where the candidates differ completely: nuclear energy and the admission of Turkey to the European Union. "Sarko" wants to continue expanding nuclear energy while "Ségo" wants to move into soft energies. Sarko is adamently opposed to Turkey's admission to the E.U. ("Turkey is not European; it is in Asia Minor!", he exclaimed) while Ségo prefers "a pause" to let time pass and reconsider the issue.

If this sounds like the textbook difference between Right and Left, Conservative and Socialist, you're correct. But it is also the difference between male and female, left-brain and right-brain, Mars and Venus! Sarko is pragmatic and aggressive; Ségo is idealistic and concilliatory. Unfortunately, Sarko lacks the charisma of, say, Charles De Gaulle, and Ségo lacks the vigor of Margaret Thatcher.

Perhaps the strongest point Royal made was berating Sarkozy for his lame performance during the past five years, when he has held high positions in Chirac's government, as Finance Minister and Minister of the Interior. She challengd him to explain why he did so little to implement the changes he now advocates.

Most tellingly, Royal wrapped up her comments with an appeal to voters to overlook the fact that she is a woman; after all, she reminded them, look at Angela Merkel, the first woman chancellor of Germany. Times are indeed changing. But perhaps someone should remind the French of another woman who led them out of difficulty: Joan of Arc!