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France votes in first round of presidential poll

In the first round of the 2012 presidential election, French voters are choosing between 10 candidates for the country’s top post after a raucous campaign season that saw the economy dominate the political discourse.


After a bitter campaign season that raged amid the backdrop of the eurozone crisis, voters across France are casting their ballot Sunday in the first round of the 2012 French presidential election. 

An estimated 44.5 million eligible French voters are choosing between 10 candidates, including incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande and extreme right National Front party chief, Marine Le Pen.

Polls opened at 8am local time on Sunday across mainland France with voters lining up to cast their ballot outside polling stations in most parts of the country.

By 5pm, the French Interior Ministry said over 70 percent of France's registered voters had cast ballots. It was slightly less than the nearly 74 percent at the same time in the 2007 first-round vote.

Voting began Saturday for French citizens living in the Americas as well as in France’s far-flung overseas territories -- islands in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans -- where 882,000 French citizens enjoy full voting rights.

On Sunday morning, Sarkozy and his wife, the singer and ex-model Carla Bruni Sarkozy, voted at a high school in an affluent western Parisian district as a small crowd of supporters on the sidewalk chanted “Bravo!” “Bravo!” as the couple left.

At his last rally in Nice on Friday night, just hours before campaigning officially stopped, Sarkozy told his supporters that “the moment of truth” had arrived.

Earlier Friday, in an uncharacteristically contrite interview with a French radio station, Sarkozy apologized for the “mistakes” he made following his election triumph in 2007, acknowledging that he did not immediately understand “the symbolic dimension of the role of president”.

The 2012 French presidential campaign has shaped up as a referendum on Sarkozy’s personal style, especially his perceived penchant for a flashy lifestyle that earned him the moniker, the “bling bling president”.

The wave of “anti-Sarkozyism” - as it’s known in France – has been seized on by Hollande, who has consistently led the polls in the run-up to the election. Polls have shown both Sarkozy and Hollande capturing slightly less than 30% of the votes, with Hollande a few points ahead.

The Socialist candidate voted in the central French town of Tulle Sunday, where he told supporters, "This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe. That's why many people are watching us.''

At his final campaign stop in the north-eastern industrial town of Charleville-Mezieres on Friday, Hollande noted that, "This is a region that put its faith in Nicolas Sarkozy, who came here making speeches on industry, jobs, workers. Everybody can see the scale of the disappointment,” he said before adding, “"Now, it's the left's turn to govern the country.”

France’s left has not governed since 1995 and there has been only one leftist president during the Fifth Republic – Socialist François Mitterrand.

If, as the polls suggest, Sarkozy loses the May 6 second round, he will be the first French president since 1981 to not win a second term in office. The last president to be voted out of office after completing his first term was the centre-right Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

Under French law, if no candidate wins 50% of the vote, the top two contenders head for a knock-out round, set for May 6 this year.

All eyes on the third place 

Over the past few months, campaigning has focused on the economy as France confronts a jobless rate of around 10% - its highest in 12 years - and a stagnant economy as the eurozone has lurched from crisis to crisis.

Both Sarkozy and Hollande have promised to balance the budget, although Hollande has favored growth over the sort of austerity measures that Sarkozy has promoted for the eurozone along with German chancellor Angela Merkel. 

The policy alignment of the two European leaders have led some critics to coin the term, “Merkozy” and publicly wonder if “Merkozy” was running for president.

The nation’s widespread dissatisfaction on the economic front has seen the invigoration of the extreme ends of the political spectrum, with the race for third place promising to be almost as exciting as the ones for the top two spots.

The 2012 campaign has seen the rise of far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon - who has polled between 12 to 15% of the vote - competing with the far-right’s Le Pen for a third place in Sunday’s race.

With his fiery rhetoric, Melenchon has built an alliance of Communists, Trotskyites and anti-capitalists, drawing huge crowds at his rallies.

Experts say that if Melenchon wins third place in Sunday’s vote, it would encourage Hollande to veer further to the left ahead of the May 6 knock-out round.

Extreme left takes on extreme right

French political commentators have suggested that Melenchon’s success could in part be attributed to his decision to openly confront the far-right National Front on the campaign trail – a strategy dubbed the “Front vs. Front fight”.

Over the past few months, Melenchon’s pugnacious televised face-offs with Le Pen have been closely monitored by French audiences who have been deprived of the sort of televised debates between candidates that dominate the US campaign season.

Le Pen, the 43-year-old youngest daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been polling between 14 to 17% in the lead-up to Sunday’s poll.

But commentators note that the National Front support base is often not accurately reflected in opinion polls, with many electors preferring not to reveal their preference for far-right candidates.

It’s a phenomenon that helped Le Pen’s father advance to the second round in the 2002 presidential election, a ghost of the past that continues to haunt French voters a decade later.

The 2002 result is often attributed to the low voter turnout in the first round, with a record abstention of 28.4%. While the last presidential election in 2007 saw a record turnout of 85% in the first round, pollsters are expecting an abstention rate of between 22 and 30% this year.

Polls close at 6pm local time in French towns and villages while voting stations in big cities like Paris and Marseilles officially shut at 8pm. Under current rules, French media are barred from publishing the surveys or even partial results until 8pm

But come Sunday evening and all eyes in this country will be peeled to television sets as French audiences watch the whittling away of eight candidates’ chances of becoming the next president, leaving just two leading contenders.

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