PARIS: France voted in elections today which could make Nicolas Sarkozy the 11th European leader to be swept from office by the economic crisis and crown Francois Hollande as the nation’s first Socialist president in nearly two decades.
Buoyed by a tide of anger at Sarkozy’s inability to rein in rampant unemployment during his five-year term, Hollande was between four and eight points ahead in final opinion polls.
A wide margin of victory in today’s runoff would give the Socialist presidential candidate more authority to pursue his programme of adding growth-oriented policies to the austerity effort in France and Europe.
Initial turnout figures published by the Interior Ministry showed 30.7 percent of registered voters had cast their ballot by midday despite cold and wet weather in much of France, topping the 28.3 percent at the same stage of the April 22 first round.
Politicians are not allowed to make public comments on election weekend, but Hollande told reporters on Friday he was worried that his lead over Sarkozy would shrink.
Reliable projections of the result based on a partial vote count will be published as soon as the last polling stations close.
Media that publish exit polls or partial results before that risk fines and legal action.
Despite shaving a couple of points off Hollande’s lead in the last days of a frenetic campaign, Sarkozy’s own aides privately admit it would require a miracle for him to turn the odds in his favour and clinch a second term.
“I’d say he has one chance in six,” a member of Sarkozy’s inner circle told Reuters on condition of anonymity shortly before campaigning drew to a halt on Friday.
Hollande has held a steady lead for weeks after outlining a comprehensive programme in January based on raising taxes, especially on high earners, to finance spending and keep the public deficit capped.
As much as his own programme, he is benefiting from a tide of anti-Sarkozy sentiment due in part to the incumbent’s showy and occasionally arrogant personal style and in part to anger over the same economic gloom that has brought down leaders from Britain to Portugal.
The election comes at a crucial time for the convalescent Euro zone as France, Europe’s No. 2 economy, is a vital partner for Berlin in safeguarding the single currency bloc’s future.
If Hollande is elected, joining a small minority of left-wing governments in Europe, he wants to challenge Berlin’s focus on austerity policies with a demand for pro-growth elements to be tacked on to the euro zone’s budget responsibility pact.
German relations aside, France is grappling with feeble growth and 10 percent unemployment, a gaping trade deficit and over-high state spending that is straining public finances and was a factor in Standard & Poor’s cutting of its triple-A credit rating.
While financial markets are coming around to Hollande’s pro-growth ideas, given growing support for them elsewhere in Europe, Hollande would need to reassure them quickly about his economic plans as fears resurface over the euro zone’s debt woes.