As the French presidential campaign draws to a close on Friday in advance of Sunday's elections, Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a lead in the opinion polls. According to the latest survey, the conservative candidate is leading his rival, Socialist Ségolène Royal, by between six and nine percentage points.
The elections are widely perceived as a crucial choice not only between the left and right but also between two visions of France's future, after 12 stagnant years under President Jacques Chirac.
While the two very different candidates agree that there is an urgent need for change in France, they differ on how to achieve it. Royal sees the state as the preferred instrument to carry out these changes, and Sarkozy is more in favor of market-led reforms.
Although the campaign has largely dealt with domestic issues, it is being viewed with much interest from abroad. In recent years, France has struggled to play much of a role on the international stage, and French voters' rejection of the European Union constitution in a 2005 referendum dismayed many in the 27-member bloc.
While German commentators welcome the hard-fought campaign and high voter interest, they are divided on whether a new face at the Élysée Palace will mean a truly new French engagement in Europe.
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The arrival in office of Jacques Chirac's successor is tied to the political comeback of France as a powerful player in Europe."
"German Chancellor Angela Merkel will view the arrival of a French president with a fresh mandate with mixed feelings. On the one hand, since taking office, she has been able to act as the Europe's most influential leader, even before taking over the EU presidency On the other hand, Merkel knows that without a decisive partner in the Élysée Palace, there will be no progress on important EU issues -- particularly on the failed constitutional treaty, which the Chancellor wants to rescue before the end of the German presidency."
"Against this background, Berlin is hoping for a Sarkozy victory the conservative candidate will see his victory as a mandate to ratify a watered-down replacement treaty in parliament, without a new referendum."
"But despite their overlapping interests on the constitutional issue, Sarkozy would be anything but a pleasant partner for Merkel the neo-Gaullist sees himself as a natural leading figure in Europe."
The financial daily Handelsblatt writes.
"Our most important partner in Europe is not going to be reliable for the foreseeable future. Neither the conservative favorite Nicolas Sarkozy nor the Socialist Ségolène Royal can be expected to take the lead on a responsible European policy."
"What Paris and Berlin have achieved together in the past, Germany will have to get done alone or with other partners: to strengthen the EU as a liberal actor in globalization ... That is because in France the left and right lurch between fears of threats, inferiority complexes and national hubris."
"It would be naïve to think that French politics will quickly become EU-compatible after the elections. Both political camps cling to specious answers to the crisis of identity: the left indulge in anti-globalization and devotion to the state, while the right unscrupulously clutches nationalism to its breast."
"The completion of the common market, the liberalization of world trade, a closer economic partnership with the US, the EU's extra security policy responsibilities -- these cannot wait just because the French political class has difficulty swallowing them."
The conservative Die Welt writes.
"The verve and desire with which the French are bidding farewell to the Chirac era is pretty impressive An excitement has been created in the political sphere, that has not been seen for some time in the election-weary neighboring countries. A wonderful struggle between rivals in the selections for candidates, an unbelievable 80 percent turnout for the first round, and then 20 million French people glued to their sets for the television duel."
"It will be interesting to see who the French will opt for: Royal, who promises so much and strives for harmony -- the mistress of hearts. Or the man with attitudes who takes risks. What an election!"
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"In this election, it was obvious (during the TV debate), that the voters are choosing between two very different personalities. 'Reconciliation instead of division,' could be used to describe Royal's line, while Sarkozy's will to action was expressed in every word and gesture."
"The key points of the debate were domestic security, the role of the state, the questions of economic, fiscal and social policies Most French people will have seen their opinions of the two candidates confirmed: Royal vacillated somewhat, while Sarkozy appeared as the big go-getter."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Both (candidates) are getting ready to ditch the legacy of their ancestors They stand for state, school and family values and authority. They talk about the renewal of morality, about the re-establishment of parental authority."
"The campaign of the last few months and the debate on Wednesday evening marked the renunciation of the libertarian principles of 1968 that have marked France for decades. It marks a political movement to the right."
"Both invoke Tony Blair. But for at least one of them, the debt goes back even further -- particularly on labor market policies -- than he likes to admit. Sarkozy's role model is Margaret Thatcher."
-- Siobhán Dowling, 3:20 p.m. CET