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Two cities, and France's stark choice of direction

Sunday, the nation will choose either Ségolène Royal or Nicolas Sarkozy to be its new president.

It's a tale of two cities. On the eve of Sunday's presidential elections, it might be called a tale of two Frances.

Neuilly-sur-Seine is a wealthy town in northeast Paris that is solidly for conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy. Nearby is the poor, largely immigrant suburb of Argenteuil, where Socialist Ségolène Royal is likely to win decisively.

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The two are connected by a miles-long tunnel. But the metaphorical distance between them is far greater.

In Neuilly, residents say the election is mainly about changing the larded social-welfare system that allows new immigrants in France to get away with not working. People in Argenteuil say it is about an inability to find a real job in a France that is ever more costly to live in.

Divides in the two cities reflect deeper concerns and fears over expectations, identity, and security in a country where "What is France?" is the main question inthis election. It brings two profound political strains to a head, says French historian Theodore Zeldin – "two different ideas about what politics is about. [Ms.] Royal sees it as about empathy, relationships, compassion. [Mr.] Sarkozy represents authority, competition, and hard work."

In a combative debate with Ms. Royal Wednesday, Sarkozy argued that France's main problem is "a moral crisis of work.... I don't believe in a welfare state, but in merit. Above all I believe in work."

Sarkozy cut his political teeth – schools chief at age 22, mayor by 28 – in Neuilly, a Scarsdale, Bel Air, or Chevy Chase of France. The manicured public spaces and posh open markets, like the Marché des Sablons, give it a solid feel of success. Some 47 percent of working residents are professionals. The average salary is $8,000 a month. Popular French actor Gerard Depardieu lives here. So does Liliane Bettencourt, owner of L'Oreal and the richest woman in France. Neuilly has no homeless persons registered. (It pays a $1 million annual fine rather than comply with diversification rules.) In Round 1 of the election, Neuilly voted for "Sarko" at 72.3 percent.

"My whole family is for Sarkozy," says Beatrice, a housewife with frosted hair who is at the market to buy some of the season's last Coquilles Saint Jacques, a scallop-like delicacy. "I know him. He quickly sizes up situations. He is a man with energy who can change France at a time it needs to be changed, because he is strong."

Argenteuil, known for asparagus and white figs, used to be a communist bastion – part of the "red belt" of revolutionary suburbs that ringed Paris. Karl Marx lived here for a time. So did painter Claude Monet. Today the city is a working-class bedroom community for Paris. It has 104,000 residents, many of whom are Arab and African immigrants, and a host of housing projects. It was a flash point in 2005 rioting.

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A France unfamiliar to many

"Argenteuil is like the Bronx," says a cafe owner. "Some neighborhoods are for Sarkozy, some are for Royal."

A section called Val Nord is the heart of the immigrant population. Women don Muslim head coverings, males wear soccer shirts sporting the name "Zidane," the Algerian superstar ousted from the World Cup finals for head-butting an opponent. It's easy to find a boucherie halal with meats prepared according to Islamic codes. When traditional middle-class French complain that they are less able to recognize their country, Val Nord is what they mean.

Val Nord is also the site of the Dalle – a vast cement plaza, a meeting place ringed with budget stores, and a high-rise housing project studded with satellites dishes for Arabic TV.

The Dalle is now known in all of France as the place where Sarkozy, as interior minister, came on Oct. 25, 2005, and spoke of ridding the area of racailles, or "scum." Tensions in the banlieue, as these suburbs are known,had been festering. But two days later, riots broke out.

"We no longer refer to the Dalle," a city official here says. "We call it the 'terrace of Argenteuil.' "

Streets are safe in the day. But as Joseph, a 26-year-old from Chad, says, "I don't like going out at night alone."

In Val Nord, residents say they are voting Royal. The name Sarkozy brings a volatile reaction. At 8 p.m. on April 22, when French officials announced Sarkozy scored first in Round 1, an angry shout echoed up and down the projects, residents say.

The two cities are also competing for actual voters. Other than Paris, France's greatest spike in voter registration – 8.5 percent – came in suburbs around Argenteuil. But it also jumped 7.9 percent in Neuilly, according to the interior ministry.

Street talk reveals left-right poles

Of course, French elections are complex and can't be reduced to social welfare and the restive suburbs. Days before the vote, pundits say the election may swing on perceptions of character among an estimated 7 million voters. "People who don't know who to vote for don't trust her [Royal] and are afraid of him [Sarkozy]," says Pierre Haski, whose new website, "Rue 89," goes online May 5.

Still, street talk in Neuilly and Argenteuil in dozens of interviews reflect the major poles of left and right in France.

In Neuilly, Sylvia, who used to work for an international corporation, sums up many conversations: "We are fed up with the state service employees," she says. "We are the only country in Europe with so many state workers. We pay for them, they are unaccountable, and they feed the welfare state. In France you can make ¤380 to ¤500 a month and never get out of bed.

"If Sarkozy does what he says, he will make people work," she continues. "I'm not unreasonable. You have to help people, that's French. But people are coming from Africa, from Arabia, from Morocco, who … know they can sign up for welfare. They … send money home to Africa. We can't have our social security used like this. We are just giving money away."

In Argenteuil, a tall bearded Moroccan, Abderrahim, offers a contrast. He came to France 30 years ago and is at the town hall to register his 4-year-old daughter and infant son as citizens. He worked eight years as a driver, then lost the job. He says, "I have a daughter and son, and I've been out of work three years. I can't believe when people say we don't care about a job. It costs ¤2,500 a month to live here properly with a family of four. I get ¤700 a month unemployment, and I pay ¤250 [a month] rent."

A city official adds, "I know a lot of the unemployed in our city are hungry for jobs. They want to work. The problem is that many of them didn't finish school, and that puts them in a different labor category."

Views on the Middle East represents another important divide. Neuilly is a center of Jewish life in Paris. Sarkozy's own Jewish roots and his insistence that France create a more robust relationship with Israel, is highly prized. "Sarkozy … is for close ties with Israel, and that's the tipping point for me," says Nicole, who attends the synagogue.

Muslims in Argenteuil worry France's longstanding sympathy with the Arab world is in danger. "Tears will fall from the sky if France becomes like America in the Arab world," said one Arab standing at the Dalle. Around the corner was a poster, "Stop Israeli terrorism in the Middle East."