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French presidential elections will be referendum on Sarkozy, the man

The first round of French presidential elections are Sunday. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is facing the lowest approval ratings of a modern president, largely due to distaste with his style, not platform.

By Staff writer / April 20, 2012

French President and UMP party candidate for the elections Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledges applause as he arrives for a campaign meeting in Nice, southern France, Friday, April 20.

Eric Feferberg/AP

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Paris

In France, to a degree unique in Europe, presidents wield enormous power. The position is only half-jokingly likened to an elected monarch, a kind of British queen and prime minister combined. 

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This Sunday, April 22, French voters will decide among 10 candidates for that top job in the first round of an election that will finally be finalized on May 6 in a two-person runoff.

Every poll indicates incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy is likely to face the Socialist Party frontrunner Francois Hollande on May 6. But Mr. Sarkozy, who has regularly made international news since getting elected in 2007, faces a serious likability problem at home, where his approval rating is, at 36 percent, the lowest of any modern French president.

So far the French elections have been criticized in and out of France as trivial and an exercise in petty and divisive attacks among candidates, and the candidates themselves have been slammed for manipulation of voter sentiments at a time when the French unemployment rate is at 10 percent. Polls show that turnout in round one is projected to be low.

But the French election outcome is increasingly seen as critical in a tightly interwoven Europe that continues to have serious economic woes. Mr. Hollande, a moderate in the social democratic mold, has vowed to rethink the Berlin-led fiscal austerity that Europe has signed onto as its way out of a debt crisis.

Such an outcome could signal, analysts say, a middle way in Europe, led by France, between the debt, lack of growth, and social despair in Greece and Spain and and the prescription of ever deeper cuts favored by Germany, Europe’s powerhouse.

“A Hollande victory could be a blow to the proponents of absolute austerity in Europe,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at IRIS. “Hollande is not against austerity, but he wants a minimum equilibrium between growth and fiscal austerity, and does not want an arbitrary German criteria in deciding how and when to reach zero percent.”

Sarkozy is too 'divisive'

Round one elections are important, political analysts say, since momentum is the most important factor in the second round. For months polls have had Sarkozy and Hollande in a microscopic see-saw, both at around 28 percent, flanked by the far right and far left candidates, Marine Le Pen and Jean Luc Melenchon, at about 15 percent.

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