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Hollande wins first round, sets up run-off with Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate François Hollande will face off in the second round of France's presidential election after edging out the far right's Marine Le Pen in Sunday's first round of voting.


Socialist presidential challenger François Hollande topped the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday with 28.4 percent of votes, while incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy finished second with 25.5 percent, according to exit polls. Those figures set up a widely expected run-off between Sarkozy and the candidate of France’s main opposition party who led most voter intentions surveys before the first round.

Exit polls showed Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, had conquered third place with 18.5% of the vote. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon took 11.7%, and centrist François Bayrou 8.8%, the Ipsos polling agency said. While the tallies of the two leading candidates were in line with dozens of opinion surveys published before Sunday’s ballot, Le Pen’s figures were well above any of those forecasts.

Marine Le Pen far exceeded her father’s shocking second-place 16.86% score in the 2002 presidential race. Even if it was not enough to get her to the second round, the extraordinary score confirmed her presence at the head of the anti-immigration National Front party and in France's political landscape for years to come. A drop in voter intentions for Sarkozy in the final weeks of the campaign appears to have swung to the far-right camp.

Hollande, who was seen as benefitting from a wave of hostility towards Sarkozy, proved a surprisingly resilient candidate. The Socialist hopeful began campaigning months before the incumbent and while he temporarily slipped behind Sarkozy in opinion polls, he regained his frontrunner status in the final two weeks of the race.

Exit polls also showed Green candidate Eva Joly with 2%, the right-wing eurosceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan at 1.8%, far-left candidates Phillippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud at 1.2% and 0.7% respectively, and off-beat candidate Jacques Cheminade winning just 0.2%.

A run-off between Sarkozy and Hollande is scheduled on May 6, with opinion polls largely favouring the Socialist Party candidate.

Turnout better than expected

Despite fears that a lacklustre campaign combined with school holidays would lead to a historically low turnout, the French flocked to the polls on Sunday. Exit polls suggested the abstention rate was around 19%, only slightly higher than level reached in 2007.

A mix of blue skies and clouds over Paris on Sunday also spurred early speculation about a potential drop in voter participation. However, Pascal, a 53-year-old voter in Paris's 10th arrondissement said the weather had little bearing on election day. “We were supposed to go away this weekend, but we made the choice to stay in Paris for the election,” she said, “Rain or shine, we vote!"

Rudy Verdier, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in the northeast suburb of La Courneuve who described himself as a Sarkozy supporter, also said few of the people he knew would sit out the election. “I think most people from around here will be voting because they know today is important and it is a chance for people in this neighbourhood to express themselves," Verdier said.

Back to the Elysee?

French analysts rushed to speculate on how the whole of the election results would affect the outcome of the May 6 run-off, and on what many saw as the impending return of the Socialist Party to the Elysee Presidential palace and a Socialist-led parliament.

The French left has spent the last 10 years as the country’s main opposition group, and had to digest three consecutive presidential defeats in 1995, 2002 and 2007. Former president François Mitterrand, who won back-to-back elections in 1981 and 1988, remains France’s only Socialist head of state since the end of World War Two.

Polling institutes were expected to quickly deliver surveys on who voters intended to back in the second round, and how potential alliances and endorsements would play out during the two weeks that separate the first and second round.

According to Eric Bonnet, head of opinion studies at the BVA polling firm, the transfer of second-round votes would favour the left-wing candidate. "Eighty percent of Melenchon’s votes will go to François Hollande while only 35% of the votes of Marine Le Pen will be reaped by Nicolas Sarkozy,” Bonnet said before results were announced.

However, Le Pen’s surprise score and doubts about who supporters of Bayrou would ultimately back promised to make the second round a nail-biting election.

Main picture by Mehdi Chebil

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