FRANCE and the French are endlessly complex. France's regions are distinct, each with its own history, wines, and special dishes, physiognomies and traditional hairstyles, and its own accent in French, as different as those of Toledo and Texas.
This will be a dangerous generalization, but France's politics are not particularly regional. It is claimed that in the United States all politics is local and the two big American parties are broad alliances between individual local politicians with little coherent difference between them.
That isn't really true of France, where the two big parties, the center-right UMP, led by President Jacques Chirac, and the center-left Socialist Party, whose leadership is now in question in advance of the 2007 elections, show more differences in what they pretend to promise the voters.
In general, the currently ruling UMP is more big business-oriented, more classically conservative in its social positions, and shows greater attachment to France's playing a larger role on the world stage.
On the other hand, while we were there, the UMP-led government raised the minimum wage by 3.05 percent, calculated to gain it more votes on the lower end of the social scale, and to the disadvantage of large employers, a UMP constituency.
The Socialist Party normally seeks to win elections by putting together a coalition based deep in France's still-strong unions that includes the Communists and other leftish elements. Its symbol is a single red rose.
But it didn't work last time. In the 2002 presidential elections, the left tore itself up and the two candidates still standing for the run-off were Mr. Chirac and right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Socialists and the rest of the left were forced to scramble to vote for Mr. Chirac, for them like taking paregoric. This time the Socialist Party is running for the roses, seeking to put forward a strong, attractive candidate to give it the presidency again after 12 years in the cold.
France, like the rest of Europe and perhaps the world, is also showing an increasing tendency to make its elections popularity contests among the presidential candidates.
The issues in France are as important as they are in the United States. Primary among them is a growth in the cost of even basic living that has been accelerated by the European Union and the use of the euro.
We found it expensive, even in the interior, far from Paris. The Frenchman's traditional morning cup of coffee in the cafe, while he ingests Le Monde, Le Figaro, or l'Equipe, the sports paper, will hit him for $3.75, and we're not talking a Starbucks-style coffee. When we asked a cowboy how he got by, he said that he only bought the essentials. He also suggested he voted for the National Front's Le Pen. Strikes were up 5 percent in France in 2005.
Another issue, as painful in France as in the United States, is immigration. The unemployment rate among North Africans in the cities of France is estimated at more than 25 percent. This, in spite of the fact that 600,000 Africans were mobilized and 78,000 died to defend France in World War I, 90 years ago. A wrong turn and a drive through the crowded, narrow streets of Beaucaire, a river town in Provence, took us into what was basically a North African ghetto.
Yet another issue for France is the major encroachment of China in Africa, which China is courting for its natural resources, timber, and oil as well as for its market. The U.S. should care, too, but its leadership isn't smart enough to grasp or respond to what is happening. The French get it and are responding, but are still playing defense.
As of now, 10 months before the elections, the candidate line-up is still fluid. The Socialists have a startlingly interesting candidate, Segolene Royal, 52, an unmarried mother of four, who finished sixth in a French men's magazine sexiness poll, only two places behind Angelina Jolie. Ms. Royal is currently being ripped at by the party's old elephants, including former prime ministers Lionel Jospin, 68, and Laurent Fabius, 59.
Mr. Jospin is a professorial figure who quit as party head after the 2002 Chirac-Le Pen debacle. Ms. Royal needs at this point to present a clearer exposition of what she stands for, including a foreign policy.
Current President Chirac is still hinting he might run for a third term, even though the latest poll showed him with a sub-Bush 16 percent confidence rating. His government and prime minister, Dominque de Villepin, show 17 percent.
On the Chirac-UMP side, the most likely candidate is current Minister of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, 51. Mr. Sarkozy reminds me of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, with both the pluses and the minuses. As minister of interior he could be called on to put down strikes, riots, or demonstrations. He could win big, or lose big, in such circumstances.
The French press are also sniffing at his marriage, with one magazine putting on its cover a photo of his wife, Cecilia, with another man. On the other hand, the press is also floating rumors that the long unmarried Segolene may be planning to wed now to try to end that criticism of her.
At this point, 10 months out, I think the elephants will eventually trap "Sego " in some less felicitous remarks and Mr. Sarkozy will win. I also think that would be an unfortunate case of "same old, same old" and that a more forward-looking France would find that Ms. Royal as president would give it an enormous boost on the world stage.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.