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Sarkozy and Hollande tune up for presidential run-off

Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate François Hollande have made it to the second round of France’s presidential election. But the far right once again caused a stir by pooling almost a fifth of the vote.


The highly anticipated showdown between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate François Hollande will indeed take place on May 6, after the left-wing challenger finished ahead of the incumbent in Sunday’s first round of voting. But it was the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, who stole the show on election day with a record score for her party.

According to partial results released by France’s Interior Ministry, Hollande secured around 28.63% of the vote, ahead of Sarkozy with 27.08% and Le Pen with 18.1%.

“I am the candidate of unity, and that unity needs to be strong,” Hollande pleaded during a post-election speech at his campaign headquarters in the central city of Tulles. France’s Socialists are hoping to return to the Elysée Palace for the first time in almost two decades.

Sarkozy, who has been criticized for waging a feeble campaign so far, was in a race against time to inject fresh momentum into his re-election drive, with opinion polls suggesting he will also finish second in the May 6 run-off.

An election day survey by the Ipsos polling firm predicted Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 54% to 46%.

Another Le Pen shocker

While Hollande's supporters were contemplating overall victory, and the president's camp were breathing a sigh of relief, the National Front was throwing the biggest party of the night.

“The battle for France has only just begun… nothing will be as before,” Marine Le Pen told ecstatic supporters in her usually combative style. Her near-20% support was a historic high for her anti-immigration National Front party, even if it did not buy her a ticket into the second round.

In the 2002 presidential election, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and long-time leader of the National Front, shocked France by securing 16.8% support in the first round. His score that year was enough to get him into the second round, where he was trounced by former president Jacques Chirac.

While her name would not be on the run-off ballot, Marine Le Pen’s third-place finish on Sunday confirmed her position as the National Front’s new leader and as a major player on France’s political stage.

The Ipsos poll revealed that 48% of people who voted for the Marine Le Pen were between 25 and 44 years of age, challenging established ideas about the far-right’s electorate and perhaps signalling an important shift in the party’s makeup under Marine Le Pen.

The same study showed that Le Pen supporters said immigration and insecurity were their top concerns, whereas Sarkozy backers said the financial crisis was France’s most pressing problem.

It remained uncertain whether Le Pen’s strong showing would translate into second-round votes for the incumbent. Marine Le Pen said she would wait until May 1 to make an announcement to supporters about the second round. However, speaking to French television, Jean-Marie Le Pen said it was clear that the first-round results spelt disaster for Sarkozy.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who some opinion surveys showed to be running neck and neck with Le Pen, disappointed supporters with 11.5% of votes. Centrist François Bayrou, who conquered third place in the 2007 presidential vote, finished in fifth with 8.5%, exit polls showed.

Green candidate Eva Joly ended election day with 2.3%, while the right-wing eurosceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan got 1.8%. Far-left candidates Phillippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud got 1.2% and 0.7% respectively, and off-beat candidate Jacques Cheminade won just 0.2%.

Left rallies behind Hollande

Candidates on the left quickly expressed their support for François Hollande in the second round. Green candidate Eva Joly went on the record as saying she backed Hollande’s presidential bid, echoing other prominent Greens.

Melenchon told supporters rallied on Place de Stalingrad in the north-east of Paris that their vote would be key in the final outcome, urging them to “come together on May 6 to beat Sarkozy”. Phillippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-capitalist Party, also called on voters to “kick out” Sarkozy from office.

Marie-George Buffet, a past presidential candidate for France’s Communist Party and an ally of Melenchon, delivered a clearer endorsement for the Socialist candidate. “All men and women on the left need to mobilize and unify around François Hollande because the danger of the right and far-right remains,” she said.

Accordign to an Ipsos survey, 86% of people who voted for Melenchon in the first round said they would probably vote for François Hollande in the second round. That compared with 60% of Le Pen supporters who said they would cast a run-off ballot for Nicolas Sarkozy.

François Bayrou said he would consult both Hollande and Sarkozy before deciding who he would endorse for the May 6 vote. According to the Ipsos poll, 33% of Bayrou’s supporters said they were leaning towards Hollande, while 32% said they favoured Sarkozy.

Allies of the incumbent president said Sunday’s results proved that opinion polls could not be trusted and that the field remained open for Sarkozy. “Nothing is certain,” said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe after results.

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