Millions of French voters turned out yesterday for the first round of a presidential poll that is expected to see the left oust French President Nicolas Sarkozy after only one turbulent term in office.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising unemployment, opinion polls show Socialist challenger Francois Hollande beating the right-wing incumbent.
Yesterday’s vote was to whittle the field from 10 to two, and Hollande and Sarkozy are expected to face each other head-to-head in a May 6 runoff to decide who will lead France, a nuclear power and Europe’s second-largest economy.
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.
The eurozone debt crisis, France’s sluggish growth and its high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
More than 44 million voters are registered, but pollsters predict about 25 percent will abstain, a high level by the standards of a French presidential poll and a source of worry for the candidates, especially Hollande.
France is proud of its republican democratic tradition and the press marked polling day with appeals for a high turnout.
“To the voting booths!” the newspapers Ouest de France and Voix du Nord declared.
“At last, we can vote!” L’Alsace said.
In all, 10 candidates are in the race, Hollande and Sarkozy being trailed by far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen, hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, veteran centrist Francois Bayrou and a handful of outsiders.
Opinion polls and campaigning were banned from midnight on Friday and will restart today in the build-up to the runoff, which Hollande is expected to win by about 55 percent to 45.