22 Apr 2012

Sarkozy fights for his job as support swings to Hollande

French voters rallied behind Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in round one of closely fought elections, leaving far right President Nicolas Sarkozy clinging to power.

With a third of votes counted, early exit polls showed Hollande with 27.5 percent of votes and Sarkozy with 26.6 per cent. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen surged ahead with almost 20 per cent of votes, leaving the presidency wide open, the polls showed.

French voters, suffering with economic uncertainty and 10 per cent unemployment, decide who will lead them on 6 May in a head-to-head runoff to determine France’s future.

Unemployment at 12-year high

The leadership contest has so far been driven by policy differences and a dislike for Sarkozy’s showy style and poor performance on unemployment. Sarkozy, 57, positioned himself as a safe pair of hands for future economic turmoil. But young voters deserted him as jobless claims hit a 12-year high.

Hollande, also 57, a moderate left-of-centre politician, promised less drastic spending cuts and higher taxes on the wealthy to fund state-aided job creation, specifically a 75 per cent upper tax rate on income above 1m euros ($1.32m).

Le Pen’s record score of almost 20 per cent was the talk of the night, outpolling hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, in fourth place with 11 per cent. Centrist Francois Bayrou finished fifth on less than 10 percent. Le Pen campaigned on jobs for French nationals at a time when jobless claims are a pressing concern.

President ‘Bling Bling’

Hollande has billed himself as the “Mr Normal” in opposition to the more flashy leadership that earned his conservative rival, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, the nickname “President Bling Bling.” The president and his sombrely-dressed wife Carla Bruni voted in the affluent west-of-Paris suburb of Neuilly, shaking hands with bystanders but leaving without comment.

Some French have shown their distaste for their president, his ex-supermodel wife, sometimes rude outbursts in public and chumminess with rich executives. But Sarkozy’s handling of the shooting drama in southwest France in March saw him claw back some ground.

Hollande voted early on Sunday in Tulle, central France, where he heads the local government for the surrounding rural Correze region. His partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, told journalists she was “super-stressed.” He called on supporters to take nothing for granted, mindful of a fiasco for the left in 2002 when poor countrywide turnout saw the Socialist candidate pushed out in the first round.

Read more: Jonathan Rugman on what France has to choose between Hollande and Sarkozy