Michel Euler, Associated Press
PARIS — What's likely to be a cacophonous list of French presidential candidates was being finalized Friday, but the race is really about two men with starkly different visions for the future of France.
Nicolas Sarkozy wants to make it a leaner, more competitive economy and keep a lid on immigration. Francois Hollande wants to tax the rich more, protect workers and make the country a kinder place — and become the first leftist to win the presidency in a generation.
French voters have six weeks to make up their minds before the balloting begins.
Candidates from the far right, and increasingly the far left, are weighing heavily on the race. How much support they gain in the first round of voting April 22 could swing the crucial runoff May 6. And it will influence parliamentary elections held a month later, in June.
All of which could change the face of France.
The 57-year-old Sarkozy's mood bounced this week after a poll suggested he was finally gaining on front-runner Hollande.
Sarkozy's expressive brow and grin are recognizable far beyond France's borders, after he intervened in wars in Libya and Georgia, and improved relations with the United States and Israel. But the sight of his face inspires visceral anger in his critics, who are legion.
Those on the left say the conservative president's moves to raise the retirement age and limit the power of France's frequent strikes are suffocating the French way of life, in favor of a more American-style, work-until-you-drop ethic.
Sarkozy says change is the only way for France to stay important. But business owners who supported him in the last election in 2007 say his reform momentum fizzled fast, and that he hasn't made it much easier to hire and fire and innovate. And European partners and ratings agencies say he's been too cautious about cutting France's big deficit.
Opponents also blanch at his attacks on immigrants — though he's the son of a Hungarian immigrant himself — and on Muslim practices, such as the ban on Islamic face veils and recent digs about halal meat.
His biggest liability appears to be his own personality.
Tabloids loved his whirlwind romance with former supermodel wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy just months after he divorced in office, but voters felt alienated. They're still angry that he celebrated his 2007 victory on a billionaire friend's yacht.
"He's too Parisian" for rural voters and seen as too "American" in his behavior and style, said Pascal Perrineau, who lectures on political sociology at Paris' Institute for Political Sciences.
Sarkozy's tongue is sharp and quick — too quick sometimes. He lashed out at a journalist during a campaign stop Thursday, the latest in a term full of such outbursts.
Hollande, who's also 57, has led opinion polls for more than half a year as the most likely next president. He led the Socialist Party through a troubled decade, but few of his ideas have energized voters.
Little known abroad, he has worried European leaders by saying he'd refuse to ratify a hard-fought European accord meant to bring eurozone economies closer together.
"I will not sacrifice the interests of my country, never!" he said in a televised debate Thursday night, adding that he wants a "reorientation of Europe." He says the pact focuses too much on austerity and not on stimulating growth.
Often accused of being too soft and not enough of a leader to run "a strong France" — Sarkozy's campaign slogan — Hollande surprised viewers and some on his campaign team with a pledge to tax high-income earners at 75 percent.
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