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Sarkozy faces defeat as France heads to polls

PARIS (Reuters) – France voted in elections on Sunday which could make Nicolas Sarkozy the 11th European leader to be swept from office by the economic crisis and crown Francois Hollande as the nation’s first Socialist president in nearly two decades.

Buoyed by a tide of anger at Sarkozy’s inability to rein in rampant unemployment during his five-year term, Hollande was between four and eight points ahead in final opinion polls.

A wide margin of victory in Sunday’s runoff would give the Socialist presidential candidate more authority to pursue his program of adding growth-oriented policies to the austerity effort in France and Europe.

Casting his vote in the town of Tulle in central France, where he was mayor for seven years, Hollande took time to shake hands and kiss voters, many of whom he knows personally.

“It will be a long day. I do not know whether it will be a beautiful day, the French will decide on that,” Hollande told Reuters, adding that he had slept little.

Sarkozy was greeted by cheering crowds when he arrived to vote at a school in an upmarket Paris neighborhood close to the home of his wife Carla Bruni, a former supermodel. “We are going to win” chanted supporters as the conservative leader briefly clasped the hands of well-wishers.

“Both Sarkozy and Hollande would be capable managers of the French economy but Sarkozy has created too much discord … That is why I voted Hollande,” photographer Gilles Leimdorfer told Reuters in Paris.

Polling stations are open from 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) to 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Sunday, and two hours later in big cities.

Initial turnout figures published by the Interior Ministry showed 30.7 percent of registered voters had cast their ballot by at midday (1000 GMT) despite cold and wet weather in much of France, topping the 28.3 percent at the same stage of the April 22 first round.

Politicians are not allowed to make public comments on election weekend, but Hollande told reporters on Friday he was worried that his lead over Sarkozy would shrink.

Reliable projections of the result based on a partial vote count will be published as soon as the last polling stations close. Media that publish exit polls or partial results before that risk fines and legal action.

Hollande voter Sylvie, a head nurse based in Paris, said she feared Sunday’s result could give Hollande a lower margin than opinion polls have suggested. “The electorate has always been very evenly split, so we could head for something more towards 51-49 percent,” she said.

Despite shaving a couple of points off Hollande’s lead in the last days of a frenetic campaign, Sarkozy’s own aides privately admit it would require a miracle for him to turn the odds in his favor and clinch a second term.

“I’d say he has one chance in six,” a member of Sarkozy’s inner circle told Reuters on condition of anonymity shortly before campaigning drew to a halt on Friday.

BNP Paribas economist Dominique Barbet said that uncertainty about the election outcome was extremely low.

STEADY LEAD

Hollande, a mild-mannered and popular career politician, has held a steady lead for weeks after outlining a comprehensive program in January based on raising taxes, especially on high earners, to finance spending and keep the public deficit capped.

As much as his own program, he is benefiting from a tide of anti-Sarkozy sentiment due in part to the incumbent’s showy and occasionally arrogant personal style and in part to anger over the same economic gloom that has brought down leaders from Britain to Portugal.

Many Sarkozy supporters said that it is more important for a president to be competent than to be likeable.”Sarkozy has managed the crisis really well. Thanks to him we are not in the same situation as Greece and Spain,” driving school instructor Soizic La Riviere told Reuters in Paris.

The vote coincides with a Greek election where voters are expected to punish major parties for economic misery.

“Clearly the voting public is getting fed up with failed policies,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman told Reuters TV in New York.

Sarkozy, sometimes called the hare in the race and his rival the tortoise, launched his campaign late and unveiled proposals one by one in high-energy speeches that swerved hard to the right as he sought to win back low-income voters that polls show have ditched him for either the radical left or extreme right.

His aggressive rallies and promises to rein in immigrant numbers, hold policy referendums, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition of getting benefits did not reduce Hollande’s lead. Sarkozy surprised many by failing to land a knockout punch on his rival in a televised debate.

In two further blows in the last days of the race, both far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who came third in the first round with 17.9 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou, who came fifth with 9.1 percent, refused to endorse Sarkozy.

ECONOMIC CREDENTIALS

The election comes at a crucial time for the convalescent euro zone as France, Europe’s No. 2 economy, is a vital partner for Berlin in safeguarding the single currency bloc’s future.

If Hollande is elected, joining a small minority of left-wing governments in Europe, he wants to challenge Berlin’s focus on austerity policies with a demand for pro-growth elements to be tacked on to the euro zone’s budget responsibility pact.

The Socialist plans to visit centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel within days of the election to discuss his ideas.

German relations aside, France is grappling with feeble growth and 10 percent unemployment, a gaping trade deficit and over-high state spending that is straining public finances and was a factor in Standard & Poor’s cutting of its triple-A credit rating.

While financial markets are coming around to Hollande’s pro-growth ideas, given growing support for them elsewhere in Europe, Hollande would need to reassure them quickly about his economic plans as fears resurface over the euro zone’s debt woes.

While economists want him to trim over-optimistic official growth forecasts and compensate for that with spending cuts, political analysts fear that would be difficult with no mandate and with left-wing voters hoping instead that he will raise the minimum wage and reverse a recent sales-tax rise.

French 10-year bond yields fell to 2.87 percent on Friday, a level not seen since early October, as initial jitters over a Hollande victory abated.

Yet French debt would remain vulnerable to selling pressure if he wins, as markets and credit rating agencies wait to be convinced of his fiscal credentials.

Little known outside France, Hollande would also have his diplomatic skills put to the test fast if he wins, with a Chicago NATO summit due in late May and a Group of 20 summit in Mexico in late June.

It would mark a big change for Hollande, a former Socialist Party chief who has never held a ministerial post and only has had local mandates.

“If Hollande does for his country what he has done for his home town, France is headed in the right direction,” Jean-Claude Charge, an IT technician, told Reuters in Tulle.

(Reporting by John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Tulle, Catherine Bremer and Geert De Clercq in Paris; writing by Catherine Bremer and Geert De Clercq; editing by Daniel Flynn and David Stamp)

Published Date: Sunday, May 6th, 2012 | 01:29 AM

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