PARIS - Wars and weather have left few scars on Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his victories, the 15-story tower of bone- white stone stands as an eternal monument to French glory, a time when Europe trembled before this nation's might.
The national mood now, as France enters the final week before Sunday's presidential election, is far less exultant. To Roland Perrossier, whose great- great grandfather fought for Napoleon, the arch has become a symbol of decline.
"It's a feeling of lost glory," said Perrossier, sheltering under the arch from a spring squall. "The French have lost the aura they once had, and France - barring a few small exceptions - no longer occupies the place it used to internationally."
Philippe Souleau, a history teacher shepherding a party of schoolchildren, was gloomier still: "France no longer has military strength worth speaking of. It is no longer economically competitive, and all this means is that it has become a second-tier nation internationally and diplomatically. Its voice is no longer heard by all."
It seems a strange verdict on a nation that has just demonstrated the world's fastest train on rails (357.2 mph) and has co-produced the world's biggest airliner (up to 853 passengers). France has a nuclear arsenal and a veto on the U.N. Security Council. Its military still sees action in the African corners of its former empire, and plays a critical role in the war on terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
From baguettes to Airbuses, French taste and ingenuity are global commodities. And viewed from the flat top of the Arc de Triomphe, the tree-lined, dead- straight boulevards and elegant buildings of Paris are still an inspiring vista.
Yet for the French, no word seems too dark to describe their funk.
This malaise has translated into a volatile and unsettled election campaign, with surprises and suspense, and led by candidates promising change but none of the shock therapy that may be necessary to revive French fortunes.
Incumbent Jacques Chirac's decision, at 74, not to seek re-election ensures that the two-round vote April 22 and May 6 will usher in a new era, no matter who wins. That prospect has energized the electorate: Voter registration is up by percentages not seen in at least three decades.
After 12 years of Chirac, France almost certainly will get its first leader born after World War II. It might, in another first, be a woman: the Socialists' motherly, ever-smiling Segolene Royal. Or it may be the right's Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant. Or farmer's son Francois Bayrou, who bills himself as the centrist between the two main candidates.
With the vote splitting three or more ways in polls, and many voters making their mind up late, no one can confidently predict the winner.
But while the face will be new, the problems he or she inherits are not, and have defied solutions before:
â€¢ The large national debt, proportionately almost the same as the United States', which will limit the new president's room to spend France back into economic and mental health.
â€¢ An economy that has stagnated at around 1.5 percent annual average growth since Chirac's 2002 re-election while Germany's is recovering and China's and Britain's have leapfrogged ahead.
â€¢ Unemployment that remains stubbornly above 8 percent and topping 20 percent among the under-25s. That age group led three weeks of riots in 2005 in depressed housing projects.
The riots confronted the French with a reality they had long chosen to overlook: of a vast, angry underclass consisting largely of Africans and Arabs distanced from ancestral family values but shut out of the French cultural and economic mainstream.
Yet for all those longing for change, many others fear it. After the riots, the government tried to start solving the problem by making it slightly easier for businesses to hire young people. The effort collapsed in a fresh wave of violent protest because it was seen as an attack on job protections secured by France's powerful unions. Nor is much comfort taken from looking overseas. Even though French multinationals are thriving, 64 percent of the French - the highest percentage in the European Union - see globalization as a threat to businesses and jobs, according to a survey last year by Eurobarometer. They worry about losing ground to China and other emerging powers that are active notably in Africa - a region the French have long seen as their own back yard. Chirac sparked a brief uptick in French confidence by going toe-to-toe with President Bush against the war in Iraq. "It was a moment when France looked at itself in the mirror and found itself beautiful," says Emmanuel Riviere of the TNS-Sofres polling agency. But the war went ahead, anyway, and some believe that the strain in relations with Washington was too great. Within the European Union, the French also sidelined themselves by voting against closer integration in 2005. In TNS-Sofres' monthly poll of 1,000 respondents, generally two-thirds say that France's role in the world is weakening. France is hardly alone in struggling to redefine itself in the globalized, post-Cold War world. Britain, too, has had to digest the end of an empire. But French nostalgia for bygone glory and growth seems to hamstring its ability to face the future with confidence. "In France, there is a particular strain of melancholy," political philosopher Chantal Delsol said in an interview. "The British tell themselves, â€˜We are no longer a great power, so we will live as a middling one.' But the French don't say that. They say, â€˜We are intrinsically a great power, so why isn't it working in reality?' For a while we try to shut our eyes, but that doesn't work for long. When reality truly dawns, then the first phase is extreme sadness, and that is the phase we are in now." That means voters are in a rebellious mood. That's nothing new - Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the architect of modern France after World War II, once quipped, "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" But the desire to protest through the ballot box is strong, and could create shocks come election day. As they did in the last presidential elections in 2002 and the referendum on Europe in 2005, millions will likely use their vote, especially in the first round, to shout a loud "Non!" to the elite. For some, that will mean turning again to extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who blames French ills on immigration, the surrender of French sovereignty to the European Union, and the elite in general. He would have France rebuild its borders, block immigration and dump the EU's common currency, the euro. In 2002, Le Pen stunned France by beating Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to make the run-off against Chirac. Le Pen went down to crushing defeat as voters, appalled at the prospect of a far-right nationalist in power, flocked to Chirac's camp. But although Le Pen is now 78, and his fifth campaign is widely expected to die in the first round, his presence has forced Sarkozy to shift further right and woo Le Pen supporters with promises of a ministry to regulate immigration and safeguard France's "national identity." Royal also has played the patriotic card too, having her supporters at her rallies sing the national anthem, "La Marseillaise," and calling for a French flag in every home. That has unsettled some on the left, as has her call for boot camps for young delinquents. French malaise also partly explains the biggest surprise of the race so far - the rise of Bayrou. The former education minister in conservative governments has repackaged himself as a middle-of-the-road alternative to France's traditional left-right divide. Polls place him third but his endorsement in a Sarkozy-Royal runoff could swing the outcome. Should Bayrou himself confound pollsters and make the runoff, many soundings suggest he would win. Bayrou has said he would form a unity government like that in Germany, whose export-driven economic recovery is the envy of France. Whoever wins will have a short honeymoon, followed by legislative elections in June that will determine whether the new president gets a parliamentary majority to implement change. "Because we have put them off for so long, all reforms are going to be difficult," said Delsol. "It's a pressure-cooker lid: If you let out even a little steam, the whole thing risks exploding." Some say, however, that the French depression is overblown and that tweaks, not radical surgery, can turn the situation around. Outgoing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who avoided major labor reforms but managed to at least trim unemployment, fulminated against "declinologists" whose books on France's demise fill stores' shelves. Sarkozy talks of a "France that is suffering," but also insists - and that record-breaking train may be a case in point - that the country "is never more ready to startle than when one believes it is in decline." Optimists take heart from the fact that, while most French tell pollsters their children will grow up worse off than they did, they also make more babies than most other Europeans. And although the French work fewer hours than many, their productivity is on par with America's. France's health services are so good that the British cross the English Channel for treatment. "The country has suffered psychologically but it would not take much to get it back on its feet," Alain Minc, an author, consultant and friend of Sarkozy, said in an interview. "Come autumn, the mood will be as pink, perhaps excessively so, as it is now excessively black." AP-CS-04-14-07 1215EDT
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