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Socialist Royal
to face conservative Sarkozy in French presidential

Socialist Royal
to face conservative Sarkozy in French presidential

Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy holds an advantage over his Socialist rival, Segolene Royal, after the two advanced to the second round of France's presidential election, narrowing the vote to a choice between the tough-talking former interior minister or the first woman with a chance of becoming the country's leader.

Royal and Sarkozy planned rallies Monday night with an eye on voters who deserted the left and right in favor of farmer's son and lawmaker Francois Bayrou, who placed third on Sunday in one of the big surprises of the campaign.

The winner's task will be tough: France is a troubled nation, still haunted by the riots by young blacks and Arabs in poor neighborhoods in 2005.

Decades of high unemployment, increasing competition from economies like China's, and a sense that France is losing influence in the world made the campaign a passionate one.

Sarkozy would relax labor laws and cut taxes to invigorate the sluggish economy, while Royal would increase government spending and preserve the country's generous worker protections.

Royal too champions change but says it must not be brutal.

''I extend my hand to all those women and men who think, as I do, that it is not only possible but urgent to abandon a system that no longer works,'' she said.

With 18.5% of the vote, Bayrou won the support of voters who could hold the key to victory for Sarkozy or Royal when the French elect a new president in two weeks.

Bayrou's centrist Union for French Democracy has traditionally voted with the right in parliament and has often had ministers in conservative governments. But Bayrou the candidate drew leftists as well as conservatives to his camp; both Sarkozy and Royal need those votes back.

''The door is naturally open,'' Sarkozy's top lieutenant, Brice Hortefeux, said Monday on France-Inter radio, adding that he felt Sarkozy best embodies the values of the center. But he said that Sarkozy and his governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, would appeal directly to voters, not to Bayrou's political apparatus.

With nearly all votes counted, Sarkozy had 31.1%, followed by Royal with 25.8%, and Bayrou. Turnout was 84.6%--the highest in more than 40 years and just shy of the record set in 1965.

Royal is the first woman to get this close to the helm of this major European economic, military, and diplomatic power. Sarkozy would be likely to push his anxious nation toward painful change.

Either way, France will get its first president with no memory of World War II to replace the 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, who is stepping down after 12 years.

Sunday's first round of voting shut out 10 other hopefuls, from Trotskyists to far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen had hoped to repeat his shockingly strong showing of 2002 but instead finished a weak fourth with 10.5%.

Both Sarkozy, a Hungarian immigrant's son, and Royal, a military officer's daughter who beat Socialist heavyweights to win her party's nomination, are in their 50s.

The runoff offers ''a clear choice between two very different paths,'' Royal said.

Sarkozy told cheering supporters Sunday night that by choosing him and Royal, voters ''clearly marked their wish to go to the very end of the debate between two ideas of the nation, two programs for society, two value systems, two concepts of politics.''

Despite his lead, the former interior minister faces a powerful ''Anything But Sarkozy'' push by those who call him too arrogant and explosive to run a nuclear-armed nation. He once called young delinquents ''scum,'' a remark that outraged the residents of poor neighborhoods and has dogged him politically.

Royal, a lawmaker and feminist who says she makes political decisions based on what she would do for her children, shot to popularity by promising to run France differently. But she has stumbled on foreign policy. In one gaffe, during a trip to Beijing she praised the Chinese for their swift justice system.

Many voters question whether she is ''presidential'' enough to run France.

Sarkozy should be able to count on votes from the far right, whose champion Le Pen suffered his second-worst showing in five presidential elections.

Royal's score was the highest for a Socialist since Francois Mitterrand in 1988. But closing the gap with Sarkozy could be a struggle in round 2. Candidates to her left together scored about 11%. They immediately swung behind her after their elimination, but their votes alone will not be enough to put Royal in power.

Turnout was 83.77%--just shy of the 84.8% first-round record, set in 1965. That year, modern France held its first direct presidential election, with World War II general Charles de Gaulle and Socialist Francois Mitterrand reaching the runoff that de Gaulle went on to win. (Angela Charlton, AP)

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