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French elections: Socialist challenger Hollande takes Round 1, promises growth

Both François Hollande and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy now advance to a runoff presidential election on May 6.

By Staff Writer / April 22, 2012

Socialist party candidate Francois Hollande waves after his Sunday-night speech in France. He and French president Nicolas Sarkozy will vie in a run-off election.

Christophe Ena/AP

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Paris

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande appear ready to face off May 6 for the French presidency after an unusual first round of elections that combined a high turnout rate with low voter enthusiasm.

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A late surge of Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, at 28.4 percent according to exit polls, eclipsed the 25.5 percent of president Sarkozy, and represents the first time in modern France an incumbent has not taken the lead after Round 1.

Political experts have stressed for weeks that Mr. Sarkozy, elected in 2007, needs to use Round 1 to create momentum if he is to win on May 6 and stay in office. 

Round 1 winnows the French field from 10 candidates to two.

Perhaps the most unexpected outcome is the robust 19 to 20 percent score of far right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who compares herself to a Joan of Arc, and has run a campaign focused on foreigners and Islam. Ms. Le Pen said tonight, after a high score that defied polls putting her at 14 to 15 percent, that "We are just at the beginning.... Nothing will ever be the same again."

A high official turnout of 81.3 percent is attributed to a combination of growing French concern for the economic future, an “anti-Sarkozy” vote that has long been brewing, and a sharp French remembrance of the 2002 elections that saw a protest vote abstention in Round 1 and a run-off featuring far right political figure Jean Marie Le Pen, father of Ms. Le Pen.

Yet Ms. Le Pen’s tally in 2012 is surprisingly higher than her father in 2002.

In interviews at Paris polling stations, French citizens expressed little real joy in the vote but felt that France’s future is so uncertain that they needed to do their civic duty.

“Whoever is elected, things are going to be hard,” says a middle-aged Frenchman, Angelo Benkaddour, outside a voting station in Paris' 10th district. “What’s happening in Greece and Spain [economic woes], it is coming here.”

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