Big turnout in vote for French president

6th May 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 6, 2007 (AFP) - French voters turned out en masse Sunday to choose a new president with rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy the favourite against Socialist Segolene Royal in their duel to win a mandate for sweeping change.

PARIS, May 6, 2007 (AFP) - French voters turned out en masse Sunday to choose a new president with rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy the favourite against Socialist Segolene Royal in their duel to win a mandate for sweeping change.

Thousands of police were on standby in Paris and its high-immigrant suburbs in case a Sarkozy victory sparks trouble but there was more political focus on the poll turnout which at midday was the highest since the 1974 election.

By noon, 34 percent of France's 44.5 million eligible voters had cast ballots for a successor to President Jacques Chirac who is stepping down after 12 years in office.

The strong participation underscored the exceptional interest generated by the left-right battle for the Elysee palace, one of the hardest in decades.

Sarkozy, smiling broadly and accompanied by his two step daughters, voted in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly sur Seine, where he was greeted with cheers of "Nicolas president." His wife Cecilia was not present however.

He signed autographs, shook hands, but made no comment.

Royal, seeking to become France's first woman president, said the choice for her "had not been difficult" after voting in the town of Melle in her constituency of Deux-Sevres in western France.

Sarkozy, 52, who has been leading in public opinion polls, says he wants to get France "back to work" and is proposing tax cuts and incentives to free up the labour market. He also supports tougher controls on immigration.

Royal, 53, proposing to safeguard France's generous social protection, create jobs and carry out institutional reform to bring government closer to the people.

"Today we are making a choice as a society," said Guillaume Bellequic, 28, a computer expert who emphasized the radical differences between the two candidates after he voted in the western city of Nantes.

"There is change in the air," said Gaelle Bernard, 30, a psychologist. "And I am mostly hopeful."

The election marks a shift to a younger generation of leaders born after World War II, who are promising to tackle the huge national debt, high unemployment and simmering tensions in the suburbs.

Maria Dallais, a 52-year-old cleaning lady in the suburb of Suresnes, west of Paris, said she voted for Sarkozy "because we need radical change. People need to go back to work."

With the final polls showing Sarkozy on course for victory, Royal warned Friday that his victory could ignite new violence in the high-immigrant suburbs where there were riots in 2005.

Royal has described Sarkozy as a "dangerous" leader who would divide rather than unite the French people. The former interior minister responded by labelling Royal's attacks "outrageous" and prompted by desperation.

Sarkozy's tough approach to law and order and pledges to purge the suburbs of "rabble" has turned him into an enemy of the poor neighborhoods where many descendants of African immigrants say they are shut out of mainstream France.

Some 3,000 anti-riot and military gendarmes were on hand in Paris and in the nearby suburbs where rioting broke out in 2005 to respond to any flareup, a police source said. Extra police were also sent to the capital.

In Argenteuil, one of the suburbs hit by the 2005 unrest, a steady stream of voters calmly turned out to render their verdict at the end of one of the hardest fought campaigns in decades.

Aurelie Legrand, a 21-year-old student from the French island of La Reunion, said she voted for Royal to try to block a Sarkozy victory. "People say that if he wins there will be more violence so naturally it makes you think," she said.

The first round on April 22 was marked by a near-record turnout of 84 percent. Sarkozy and Royal advanced from a list of 12 candidates.

The run-off focused on winning over the 6.8 million voters who backed centrist Francois Bayrou in the first round.

Polling stations close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT).

Confident of a victory, Sarkozy's supporters are planning a celebration near Paris' famed Champs Elysees in the evening with rock star Johnny Hallyday set to appear.

The new president is expected to take office around May 17, and launch into the campaign for legislative elections to be held in June to fill all 577 seats in the National Assembly.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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