France Casts Votes in First Round of Presidential Election

French voter turnout held near a
33-year high in the first round of the presidential election
that is almost certain to turn into a battle between President
Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.

About 70.6 percent of the voters had cast their ballots by
5:00 p.m. Paris time, the Interior Ministry said, close to the
73.9 percent at the same time in the last election. The 84
percent participation in 2007 was the highest since 1974. About
45 million voters, more than 68 percent of the population, are
likely to cast their ballots among 10 candidates, the top two of
whom will head to the decisive second round on May 6.

“It’s a foregone conclusion who will be in the second
round,” said William Keylor, a professor of modern French
history at Boston University, said in a telephone interview.
“Now begins the not-always easy task of maintaining the base
and appealing to the center.”

With the highest joblessness in 12 years and an economy
barely growing, Sarkozy, France’s most unpopular post-World War
II president, has trailed Hollande in every poll in a head-to-
head match in the past 11 months. Hollande promises more
spending and higher taxes, saying Sarkozy’s tax cuts worsened
French finances and failed to create jobs. Sarkozy claims credit
for spending cuts and a retirement-age increase that he says
warded off the worst of the euro debt crisis turmoil.

“Where would France be if we hadn’t done the pension
reform?” Sarkozy said at his final campaign rally on April 20.
“We’d be in the same situation as Spain.”

Debt, Deficit

A CSA survey completed on April 20 showed Hollande will win
28 percent in the first round and Sarkozy 25 percent. That puts
Sarkozy, 57, at risk of becoming the first incumbent not to win
the first round. Ifop-Fiducial’s last tracking poll had Sarkozy
leading 28 to 26. Neither published a margin of error.

The final polls before the vote showed Hollande, 57, with a
lead in a head-to-head match of between seven and 14 points over
the incumbent, who is finishing his first five-year term.

All ten candidates had voted by midday, with Hollande
casting his ballot in Tulle and Sarkozy giving his in Paris’s
16th arrondissement.

The winner faces commitments to the European Union to
reduce debt and deficits. Government debt will exceed 90 percent
of gross domestic product next year, the International Monetary
Fund estimates.

The IMF sees a deficit of 3.9 percent of GDP next year —
while Sarkozy has promised to reach the EU limit of 3 percent —
and growth of 1 percent.

Second-Round Reserves

“Post the election, Hollande probably moves toward the
center,” Stephane Deo, the chief European economist for UBS
Securities in London, said in a note to investors April 17.
“Whoever wins is going to have to start talking honestly about
how to tackle the deficits and debt levels.”

The two winners of the first round will also need to court
supporters of other candidates in the race. CSA had the anti-
immigration, anti-euro National Front’s Marine Le Pen at 16
percent, Communist Party-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon at 14.5
percent, and self-styled centrist Francois Bayrou at 10.5
percent. Five others would split the rest.

Pollsters were barred from publishing surveys between
midnight on April 20 and until polls close at 8 pm today.

“The real key of the first round is not who crosses the
finish line first but the overall balance between votes for the
right and the left,” Gael Sliman, director of BVA, said in e-
mailed comments last week. “From this point of view, the
Socialist candidate should have important reserves for the
second round.”

Debt Rating

The first-round leader has won five of France’s eight
direct presidential elections, dating back to 1965. Hollande
leads Sarkozy in what the French call “reserves,” or likely
support from among the also-rans.

While 85 percent of Melenchon voters will vote for Hollande
in the second round, only 54 percent of Le Pen’s supporters are
sure to go for Sarkozy, according to a BVA poll April 17.
Bayrou’s support splits 39 percent for Hollande and 25 percent
for Sarkozy. The rest were undecided.

Hollande, who was party leader from 1997 to 2008 and
represents a rural district in the parliament, would be the
first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand in 1995. He
has never held a minister’s post.

He has proposed a 75 percent tax on the wealthiest, an
increase in the minimum wage, renegotiating European treaties on
deficit limits to promote growth, and banning leveraged buyouts.

Sarkozy has stressed personal responsibility, security, and
national identity to chip away at support for the National
Front. He has sought centrists by saying speculators will attack
French bonds should Hollande be elected.

ECB Role

While Standard Poor’s cut France from AAA this year, the
country’s debt has kept the top grade from other credit-rating

“It is particularly difficult to know from either Hollande
or Sarkozy what are political rhetoric and electioneering and
what are true commitments,” said Marc Chandler, chief currency
strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman Co. in New York.

A Sarkozy ouster would follow those by leaders in Ireland,
Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Slovakia since the
debt crisis began, and make him the second French president
after Valery Giscard D’Estaing in 1981 to lose a re-election
bid. Sarkozy’s 36 percent approval rating in an April 15 Ifop
poll is the lowest for any post-World War II French president.

‘Lesser Evil’

In the final days of campaigning, both Hollande and Sarkozy
have backed a more activist European Central Bank. That risks
tensions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The comments by
Sarkozy also broke a pledge he made with Merkel last November
not to publicly comment about the ECB.

“The candidates’ views on European matters have converged
over the past few weeks,” Thomas Costerg, an economist at
Standard Chartered Bank in London, wrote in an e-mailed comment.
“We think fears of a Franco-German rift are overdone. The solid
Franco-German relationship goes beyond party politics.”

While about 70 percent of voters have told pollsters they
are sure of their choice, that doesn’t mean the campaign has
thrilled them. As many as a quarter of registered voters may not
vote, said a BVA poll April 6, which would be the second-highest
abstention rate in a French presidential election.

“With high unemployment and France’s loss of its triple-A
rating, Sarkozy doesn’t have much of a record to run on,”
Boston’s Keylor said. “But Hollande has never even held a
ministerial position. He doesn’t have much charisma. For many
voters, it’s a question of the lesser of two evils.”

To contact the reporter on this story:
Gregory Viscusi in Paris at
Mark Deen in Paris at
Helene Fouquet in Paris at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Hertling at
Vidya Root in Paris at

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