Associated Press Writer Herve Brival in Fort de France, Martinique, contributed to this report:
Eyes on France
France began choosing a new president Sunday with millions of voters undecided and millions more voting for the first time, making the selection of two final candidates highly unpredictable.
The successor to Jacques Chirac, ending 12 years as head of state at the close of his second term, will face a large and listless economy and an alienated young Muslim population, among a host of problems.
Only four of the 12 candidates, including conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal, who was No. 2 in polls, had a real chance of making it to a final round of voting May 6. [...]
Sarkozy, blunt, reformist and pro-American, was frightening to many French. Royal presented a smiling, feminist mother-figure. Scholarly farmer's son Francois Bayrou could pull off a surprise win, and the anti-immigrant nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen was still counting on big support, in hopes of repeating his shock 2002 second-place finish.
Sarkozy, long leading in polls, is ready to build a new pro-American French foreign policy, and proudly shook President Bush's hand last year. He talks of a "rupture" with the past, including painful reforms of worker-friendly labor laws to make France more competitive. He has toned down his rhetoric in the campaign, but many predict he will revive it if elected.
Royal said she would never shake Bush's hand without letting him know what she thought of his policies first. She says her France would be different because she would be its first woman president. She has tilted away from some of her Socialist Party's policies, but her economic plan would lean left and reverse some reforms of the Chirac era.
Sarkozy and Royal are both in their 50s, carry iPods and appealed to young voters in Internet campaigns. Both infiltrated the political system from the outside _ Royal as a woman, Sarkozy as the son of a Hungarian immigrant. [...]
I may have to curtail my French bashing. Blogging will be slow.