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.
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.”
Implications for Europe
Hollande, a French elite and insider who has never held a ministerial position, has run an amiable and mild-mannered campaign in conscious opposition to the peripatetic Sarkozy, whose style irritates many French.
A Hollande victory in May might have serious consequences for the fiscal austerity model Europe has adopted to solve a eurozone debt and banking crisis that has toppled the governments of Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and Italy. Currently, European nations have signed onto a German-led EU "fiscal compact" that demands cutting debt and budgets, even though many peripheral nations like Spain and Greece have been laid low by austerity.
Hollande admits that austerity is needed but wants to add policies of growth to the fiscal austerity that slashes public spending, a program hammered out earlier this year by the combination of Germany's Angela Merkel, and Sarkozy. Tonight Holland said he would "redirect Europe's path to growth and jobs."
Sarkozy himself has also, of late, talked about growth policies as well.
The outcome for the far-left candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon, a former Trotskyite who emerged to created some enthusiasm and crowds in late March and April, disappointed his constituency with an 11 percent total.
Many French said they voted for the candidate they felt would do the least harm. Several who voted for Sarkozy and Hollande said they did so with little enthusiasm. “Sarkozy is the lesser evil,” says Phillip, an older voter in Paris' 16th district.
Voters often said it didn’t matter who was elected, and that regardless of who won, the winner would not follow through on campaign promises, due to complex and larger economic forces in Europe that have led to the euro crisis.
Jerome, age 40, voted for Hollande as France in recent years under Sarkozy has become divisive and a “broken society.”
The French president’s approval rate is at historic lows, below 40 percent.
Polls closed between 6 and 8 pm on a day in Paris that featured as many kinds of April weather as French candidates. The day started chilly with a tearing wind and ended up mild and still. In between came alternate hours of showers and sunshine, heavy clouds and blue sky, in every possible variety.