France votes as Sarkozy faces defeat after one term
PARIS MILLIONS of French voters turned out on Sunday for the first round of a presidential poll that is expected to see the left oust Nicolas Sarkozy after only one turbulent term in office.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls predict Socialist challenger Francois Hollande will beat the right-wing incumbent.
Turnout after four hours of voting was strong, at just over 28 percent the second highest at that stage since 1981, belying fears that a low-key campaign would be capped by mass abstentionism in the vote itself.
Sunday’s poll will whittle down the field from 10 to two and Hollande and Sarkozy are expected to face each other in the May 6 runoff to decide who runs France, a nuclear-armed power and Europe’s second largest economy.
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.
The eurozone debt crisis and France’s sluggish growth and high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
“I have never missed a vote, but this time I feel little enthusiasm for the election,” said 62-year-old retired high school teacher Isabelle Provost as she emerged into bright Paris sunshine after casting her ballot.
“Economically there is little difference between the two main candidates.” If, as expected, Sarkozy polls second, he will be the only incumbent French president to lose a first round vote in the history of the Fifth Republic, which came into being in 1958. Hollande voted in his stronghold, the country town of Tulle in the central Correze region, where he is the local member of parliament and heads the regional council and was warmly greeted by officials and voters alike.