She rocketed onto the world stage, a charismatic Socialist leader looking to be France's first female President. Now, after her roller-coaster, gaffe-tainted campaign--even leftists criticized her meeting with a bombastic Hizballah lawmaker in Beirut--Ségolène Royal is in the final round of the presidential campaign.
In a first-round vote that drew an 84% turnout, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy won more than 31% of the returns, vs. nearly 26% for Royal, setting up a classic left-right contest for the May 6 runoff. France is enthralled. It's the first matchup of candidates born after World War II, and with high unemployment and immigration boiling issues, the stakes are enormous. Royal desperately needs the votes of centrist François Bayrou, who took 18.5% of the first-round tally. She has reached out to Bayrou, but the would-be kingmaker is refusing to endorse either finalist. Sarkozy seems to have won nearly half the voters who in 2002 gave Jean-Marie Le Pen an 18% score. In the runoff Sarkozy will count on the rest plus Bayrou voters who share his focus on economic liberalization and cutting debt. Royal will pit her softer image against Sarkozy's tougher style. The odds favor Sarkozy, but the race is too close to call.