Sunday, April 22, 2012

Socialist Candidate Francois Hollande Wins First Round in Presidential Elections

22 April 2012
Last updated at 22:19 ET

France election: Hollande takes lead into second round

French President Nicolas Sarkozy faces an uphill struggle in the second round of the presidential election, after coming second in Sunday's first vote.

He won only 27.1%, while his socialist rival Francois Hollande took 28.6% of the vote, the first time a sitting president has lost in first round.

Third-place Marine Le Pen took the largest share of the vote her far-right National Front has ever won with 18.1%.

The two men will face each other in a second round of voting on 6 May.

The BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris says his narrow victory in this round gives Francois Hollande crucial momentum ahead of the run-off in two weeks' time.

Analysts suggest Mr Sarkozy will now need to appeal to the far-right voters who backed Ms Le Pen if he is to hold on to the presidency, but Mr Hollande remains the front runner.

Around one in five people voted for the National Front candidate, including many young and working class voters, putting her ahead of seven other candidates.

The poll has been dominated by economic issues, with voters concerned with sluggish growth and rising unemployment.

After the results began to come in, Mr Hollande said he was "best placed to become the next president of the republic" and that Mr Sarkozy had been punished by voters.

"The choice is simple, either continue policies that have failed with a divisive incumbent candidate or raise France up again with a new, unifying president," Mr Hollande said.

It is the first time a French president running for re-election has failed to win the first round since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Mr Sarkozy - who has been in power since 2007 - said he understood "the anguish felt by the French" in a "fast-moving world".

He called for three debates during the two weeks to the second round - centring on the economy, social issues, and international relations.

The focus of the Socialist Party these past few weeks was to deny any momentum to President Sarkozy. The first cheer came when the result appeared on the TV screens. Any lead at this stage is considered a strong performance.

The second cheer came for Jean-Luc Melenchon who called on his supporters to join forces with those of Mr Hollande to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nothing will be taken for granted here. In 1995 Lionel Jospin lost a first-round lead.

Greater efforts will be made in the next week to get out the vote.

But 350 polls published since this campaign began have put Mr Hollande in a commanding lead for round two. The celebrations must wait another two weeks - but they are daring to believe.

Mr Hollande promptly rejected the idea. He told reporters that the traditional single debate ahead of the second round was sufficient, and that it should "last as long as necessary".

Far-right shock

Turnout on Sunday was high, at more than 80%.

Ms Le Pen, who leads the anti-immigration National Front, achieved more than the breakthrough score polled in 2002 by her father and predecessor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who got through to the second round with more than 16%.

After the vote, Ms Le Pen told jubilant supporters that the result was "only the start" and that the party was now "the only opposition" to the left.

Leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was backed by the Communist Party, came fourth with almost 12%.

He urged his supporters unconditionally to rally behind Mr Hollande in the run-off.

Centrist Francois Bayrou, who was hoping to repeat his high 2007 score of 18%, garnered only about 9%.

Polls suggest Mr Hollande will comfortably win the second round.

The shout was deafening here when the first estimates were announced. This is the party's best performance in its history - better even than when its firebrand founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, famously made it through to the second round 10 years ago.

People here are disappointed with third place but say no-one can doubt now that the National Front is a big player on the French political stage. They view tonight as a huge victory for the party's new leader, Mr Le Pen's daughter Marine.

She has tried to soften the party's racist image, in an attempt to widen its appeal. But her party's critics will wring their hands at her strong showing.

The BBC's Chris Morris in Paris says that if Mr Sarkozy cannot change the minds of a substantial number of people, he will become the first sitting president to lose an election since 1981.

Wages, pensions, taxation, and unemployment have been topping the list of voters' concerns.

President Sarkozy has promised to reduce France's large budget deficit and to tax people who leave the country for tax reasons.

Mr Hollande has strongly criticised Mr Sarkozy's economic record.

The Socialist candidate has promised to raise taxes on big corporations and people earning more than 1m euros a year.

He also wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

If elected, Mr Hollande would be France's first left-wing president since Francois Mitterrand, who completed two seven-year terms between 1981 and 1995.

French feel little passion for man who would be president Karen Kissane

April 23, 2012

PARIS: Clement Gaultier-Falguiere, 21, was underwhelmed at the prospect of placing his first vote in a French presidential election yesterday. He doubts that any of the candidates will make a difference. ''I'm a bit like everybody else in France, disappointed and sceptical,'' he said.

He sees President Nicolas Sarkozy as driven into grandstanding gestures by public opinion and does not think the Socialist contender, Francois Hollande, offers much of a vision either. He said most of the young people he knew have said they would vote for Mr Hollande, not because they wanted him but because he was not Mr Sarkozy.

The two men are expected to defeat eight other candidates, including the far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, in the first round of voting, which began last night. They would then go on to face each other in the final and decisive vote on May 6.

''Even my friends who traditionally vote on the right don't want Sarkozy,'' Mr Gaultier-Falguiere said. ''They are disappointed with the economy and with the state of France. We don't know where we are going. There is no direction.''

His friends are representative. As voting began, Mr Sarkozy was staring at defeat. Most opinion polls show him trailing Mr Hollande by up to 3 points, and up to 12 points for the second and final vote. His approval rating, which five years ago was 53 per cent, is down to 33 per cent.

Mr Sarkozy is trailing because of voter anger over the economy, which is stagnant, with joblessness at 10 per cent. He criticises Mr Hollande as inexperienced but Mr Hollande's promise to impose a 75 per cent tax rate on people earning more than €1 million ($1.27 million) a year has appealed to voters.

While Mr Sarkozy won a brief spike in support after his tough response to shootings in the name of Islam in Toulouse last month, it has since slid away.

Polls were predicting a high abstention rate of up to a third and a strong protest vote.

If no candidate wins 50 per cent of the first round of voting, the top two contenders face each other in a knockout round.

Mr Hollande says the President has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses while Mr Sarkozy says his rival is weak-willed and would spark panic on financial markets with reckless spending pledges.

The result of the election could also have wider implications for the euro zone.

European leaders including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, have refused to meet Mr Hollande publicly because he has said he wants to renegotiate the fiscal pact underlying the deal to shore up the euro zone.

with Agence France-Presse

Read more:

Le Pen voters to arbitrate Hollande-Sarkozy duel

7:53am IST
By Paul Taylor and Emmanuel Jarry

PARIS (Reuters) - Far-right voters may decide who becomes France's next president after anti-immigration crusader Marine Le Pen's record first-round score jolted the race between Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

The centre-left Hollande narrowly beat the conservative Sarkozy in Sunday's 10-candidate first round by 28.6 percent to 27.1 percent, the Interior Ministry said with 99 percent of votes counted, but Le Pen stole the show by surging to 18.0 percent, the biggest result for a far-right candidate.

Her breakthrough mirrored advances by anti-establishment Eurosceptical populists from Amsterdam and Vienna to Helsinki and Athens as anger over austerity, unemployment and bailout fatigue deepen due to the euro zone's grinding debt crisis.

"The battle of France has only just begun," Le Pen, 43, daughter of former paratrooper and National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, told cheering supporters. Declaring that her wave of support was "shaking the system" of mainstream consensus politics, she said: "We are now the only real opposition."

The gravel-voiced blonde, who wants France to abandon the euro currency, said she would give her view on the runoff at a May Day rally in Paris next week. But she saved most venom for Sarkozy, aiming to pick up the pieces in any recomposition of the right and hoping the Front can enter parliament in June.

More than one third of French voters cast their ballots for protest candidates outside the political mainstream.

The deeply unpopular Sarkozy, the first sitting president to be forced into second place in the first round of a re-election bid, will have to do the splits to attract both far-right and centrist voters he needs to win the May 6 runoff.

After five years of leading the world's fifth economy, a nuclear power and activist U.N. Security Council member, he could go the way of 10 other euro zone leaders swept from office since the start of the crisis in late 2009.

Hollande, 57, who opinion polls taken on Sunday showed winning the decider with between 53 and 56 percent of the vote, vowed to change the direction of Europe if elected and lead an economic revival with greater social justice.

"My final duty, and I know I'm being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment," he told supporters in his constituency of Tulle in southwestern France.

Financial market analysts say whoever wins in two weeks' time will have to impose tougher austerity measures than either candidate has admitted during the campaign, cutting public spending as well as raising taxes to cut the budget deficit.

A parliamentary election to be held in June will further determine the complexion of the next French government.

"These exit results to me suggest that borrowing costs for France will go up, relative to Germany. We have seen them climbing in recent days and that should continue," said Simon Derrick, head of currency strategy at Bank of New York Mellon in London.

The Netherlands appears to be headed for early elections after anti-European populist Geert Wilders broke up budget talks with the centre-right minority government on the weekend, opposing austerity measures required to meet EU fiscal targets.


Sarkozy struck a defiant tone after his setback, steering to the right to try to attract Le Pen voters by vowing to tighten border controls, stop factories leaving France, make work pay and uphold law and order, rather than reaching out to centrists.

He challenged Hollande to three live television debates over the next two weeks instead of the customary one. But Socialist aides said Hollande, who has no ministerial experience and is a less accomplished television performer than Sarkozy, had made clear he will accept only one prime-time debate, on May 2.

Communist-backed hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who polls showed at one stage challenging Le Pen for third place, finished a distant fourth on 11.1 percent, ahead of centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.1 percent. The turnout was a high 80.2 percent.

Political pundits said Hollande appeared to have larger reserves of second-round votes than Sarkozy, who would need to pick up at least three quarters of Le Pen's supporters and two thirds of Bayrou's to squeak a wafer-thin victory.

Polls taken on Sunday by three institutes suggested that between 48 and 60 percent of Le Pen voters planned to switch to the president, while Bayrou's backers split almost evenly between the two finalists, with one third undecided.

Melenchon, whose fiery calls for a "citizens' revolution" drew tens of thousands to open air rallies, urged his followers to turn out massively on May 6 to defeat Sarkozy, but he could not bring himself to mention Hollande by name.

Greens candidate Eva Joly endorsed Hollande, who can also count on the modest votes of two Trotskyist also-rans.

"Sarkozy is going to be torn between campaigning in the middle ground and campaigning on the right. He'll have to reach out to the right between the rounds, so he'll lose the centre," said political scientist Stephane Rozes of the CAP think-tank.

If Hollande wins, joining a small minority of left-wing governments in Europe, he has promised to renegotiate a European budget discipline treaty signed by Sarkozy. That could presage tension with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made the pact a condition for further assistance to troubled euro zone states.

The prospect of friction is causing some concern in financial markets, as is Hollande's focus on tax rises over austerity at a time when sluggish growth is threatening France's ability to meet deficit-cutting goals.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer, John Irish, Nicholas Vinocur, Vicky Buffery, Alexandria Sage, Brian Love in Paris, Anirban Nag in London; Editing by Alastair MacDonald)

Sarkozy's Last Stand

France's choice now is more of the same or jump off the Socialist cliff

French President Nicolas Sarkozy may be unpopular, but after Sunday's first round of voting he still has a chance for a second five-year term. This is more a tribute to the unreconstructed socialism of the French left than to Mr. Sarkozy, but he'll no doubt take it.

Mr. Sarkozy became the first incumbent French President to lose a first-round vote in the modern era, finishing second with some 26.7% of the vote as we went to press compared to 27.9% for Socialist Party nominee Francois Hollande. But the vote was close enough that Mr. Sarkozy could take some solace as he and Mr. Hollande head to the May 6 runoff.

The shock of the day was the 19.3% showing by Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigration National Front party. Her strong third place is best understood as a populist cri de coeur against an unresponsive political class that seems to have no ideas for growing the economy beyond more business bashing and ever-higher taxes.

Ms. Le Pen wants jobs reserved for Frenchmen and France to leave the euro zone. Her platform remains impractical and in some ways reactionary, but this is a turn that democracies often take when politicians seem to have no answers for high unemployment, rising debt and economic decline.

Mr. Sarkozy will have to find a way to attract most of Ms. Le Pen's votes as well as the 9.2% who voted for centrist Francois Bayrou, who finished fifth. This is no easy task, and his appeal will probably include a combination of anti-immigration riffs and more attacks on the European Central Bank (which has become the modern French substitute for running against the Germans).

The polls show that about a quarter of Ms. Le Pen's vote may go to Mr. Hollande in the second round, so Mr. Sarkozy will no doubt try to play up the risks of Mr. Hollande's left-wing fantasy program of more spending, a €1,700-a-month minimum wage, a return of the retirement age to 60 from 62, and a 75% top marginal income tax rate.

The Left Party's Jean-Luc Melenchon managed only 10.8%, and nearly all of those votes will go to Mr. Hollande. That should give the Socialist an opening to move to the center, but his platform is already so far left that this will be hard to do more than rhetorically.

The turnout at 80.3% was better than expected, if below the record level of 2007. It's a credit to the French that they came out for their favorites despite a dispiriting campaign that has seen the candidates address everything but the central French problem of how to reform and finance an economically enervating, high-tax welfare state.

The unenviable French choice now will be to hope for a better version of Mr. Sarkozy in a second term or to leap off the Socialist cliff without a parachute. Look out below.

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