PARIS - France's presidential election today is a ground-breaker - a choice between an immigrant's son and an army officer's daughter, each offering a radically different vision of how to put a dispirited nation back on track.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal are both mavericks who changed the rules of French politics and energized an electorate hungry for change. Their rise marks a generational shift, because whoever wins will be the nation's first president born after World War II.

Of three final polls, taken Wednesday and Thursday, one put them even and two gave Sarkozy the lead.

Sarkozy, a conservative, wants to free up labor markets, make the French work longer hours and whip them into shape for the global marketplace. Royal is the Socialist Party candidate who would save France's generous welfare system from the lash of Sarkozy's "neoconservative ideology."

Both have ideas for restoring national self-confidence, which lately has been battered by economic decline, unrest in France's immigrant slums, and shrinking clout in the new, united Europe which France once sought to lead.

Sarkozy doesn't hide his admiration for the United States, and Royal uses this to paint him as the yes-man of American capitalism. Sarkozy calls the Iraq invasion a mistake. Royal calls it a catastrophe.

Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, and the economy has stagnated at around 1.5 percent annual growth in the last five years. Youths in housing projects burned cars for three weeks in 2005, awakening France to the problem of a deeply discontented immigrant underclass.

Rioting flared again in March last year, this time against an effort to loosen hiring-and-firing rules in the labor market.

During President Jacques Chirac's 12 years in office, little reform was accomplished. What happens in the post-Chirac era matters deeply to the public, judging by voter engagement.

Turnout in the April 22 first-round vote was an unusually high 84 percent. And the two candidates, nicknamed Sarko and Sego, exemplify the feeling that a turning point has been reached.

Conservative vs. Socialist


The conservative front-runner's rigorous language, pledge of "rupture" with the past and pro-American posture have captivated fans hungry for decisive change.

His invective against delinquents and an uncompromising attitude have incensed opponents.

The 52-year-old ex-interior minister is despised by many black and Arab youth in housing projects that exploded in riots in 2005. He has pledged to clean them up with a power hose.

Critics question how the often hotheaded Sarkozy would lead a country proud of its cool-headed diplomacy.


The Socialist candidate has long played the underdog, surprising rivals who underestimate her.

Royal, 53, is already "Madame la Presidente" of the western French region she governs. A former environment minister, she says she's had a tougher time in this campaign as a woman, but also says voters should choose a mother as president to prove they want change.

Royal's leftist policies and persona played a larger role in voters' decision than her gender.

Foreign affairs are a weak spot.