French voters choose their president Sunday in a race that will have implications for Europe's debt crisis, the Afghanistan war and global diplomacy.
Socialist Francois Hollande, largely unknown outside French borders, is the poll favorite. Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting to avoid being a one-term president but facing widespread anger and disappointment over his handling of the economy.
A few reasons why the outcome matters:
EUROPEAN DEBT CRISIS
If Hollande wins, that could reshape the debate in the 17-nation eurozone. Until now, France and Germany _ led by Sarkozy and Angela Merkel _ have set the agenda on how best to restore troubled state finances and sluggish growth across the continent. The "Merkozy" solution: More cost-cutting to bring down debts and reassure markets. Hollande's solution: government-sponsored stimulus to revive growth.
The next leader sets a five-year course for France, a nuclear-armed country with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Sarkozy is arguably the most America-friendly French leader in a half-century. He has aligned with Washington on Iran and Syria, upped France's military presence in Afghanistan and took a major role in NATO's air campaign over Libya that helped oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Hollande, with virtually no foreign policy experience, wants to bring French troops from Afghanistan home early and might be less vigorous in flexing military or diplomatic muscle abroad.
Hollande wants the very rich to pay 75 percent in income taxes and plans to hike taxes on companies that distribute profits to shareholders instead of investing in their business. Sarkozy wants to reduce France's overall tax burden, among the highest in Europe, but is promising higher sales tax.
Sarkozy wants to halve the number of legal immigrants who enter France each year to 100,000 and wants tighter border controls. Hollande wants to better fight illegal immigration but is fine with current levels of legal immigration. The immigration debate has gotten tangled with a debate about Islamic customs in strongly secular France, home to at least 5 million Muslims.