By Darren E. Weiss

French voters last Sunday chose leftist Ségolène Royal and ruling party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy to compete in the French presidential runoff scheduled for May 6, with the country’s largest voter turnout in history supporting a foreign policy change in France’s leadership.

Sarkozy, the tough-talking former interior minister and candidate of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), won 30 percent of the vote.

Royal, who cast herself as a maternal protector en route to becoming France’s first female president, secured 24 percent, according to official returns.

Nearly 84 percent of France’s 44.5 million eligible voters participated in Sunday’s elections, a record in France that underscored an urgency to remedy economic decline at home as well as the country’s failing influence abroad. The large turnout also indicates national enthusiasm for personality-driven campaigns like those of American politicians rather than more traditional campaigns like that of outgoing French President Jacques Chirac.

The decisive May 6 runoff will be a classic left-right showdown pitting Royal, 53, who advocates greater spending for social welfare programs and a renegotiated European Union treaty, against the pro-business, pro-America and anti-immigration Sarkozy, 52, who opposes Turkey’s EU membership.

Royal, a mother of four and the first female to advance to the second round in a French presidential campaign, appeals to many Americans who see her as a French Hillary Clinton.

“Relations [with the U.S.] will improve regardless of who wins but the likelihood of them going up is far greater with Sarkozy,” said Patrick Basham, director of the Democracy Institute and a Cato Institute adjunct scholar. “If he is elected, there is going to be more common ground than there has been in some time.”

Sarkozy visited President Bush last fall to show his support for the United States, only to receive harsh criticism from both the left and right in France, causing him to slightly adjust his rhetoric.

The self-declared “friend of America” recently spoke of the necessity of a U.S.-France relationship in a foreign policy speech that carved out his opposition to Chirac’s notoriously icy relations with America.

U.S.-France relations have improved since a low point in 2003 when France organized opposition in the United Nations to a push by the U.S. and Britain to obtain a U.N. Security Council mandate for military operations in Iraq.

“To some degree France and the U.S. have kissed and made up,” said Jonah Levy, associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley and a member of the International Advisory Board for the journal French Politics. In cooperating on counter-terrorism issues and promoting democracy in the Middle East, “the two sides have stepped away from the brink and become much more pragmatic,” he said.

Historically France has kept its distance from the U.S. while remaining a friendly but not-afraid-to-be-critical ally. This position serves French interests in many ways, while the idea of cozying up to the Bush Administration would be wildly unpopular in France, said Levy.

Some politicians in the U.S. wonder if Chirac’s publicly expressed opposition to American world dominance, fashioned after Charles de Gaulle, would leave the French political scene with him. Optimism has emerged in the U.S. that a younger, less Gaullist successor would seek closer ties with America.

Harvey B. Feigenbaum, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, dismissed all optimism.

“Foreign policy is hardly being figured in the election debate at all,” he said. “In France there is a consensus on foreign policy that goes across right and left so there really wont be a huge difference between the U.S foreign policy of the candidates.”