Update: Big turnout in cliff-hanger French election

22nd April 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 22, 2007 (AFP) - French voters packed polling stations Sunday in the cliff-hanger presidential election, with right winger Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal leading the race to reach the runoff ballot.

PARIS, April 22, 2007 (AFP) - French voters packed polling stations Sunday in the cliff-hanger presidential election, with right winger Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal leading the race to reach the runoff ballot.

The estimated 30 percent of voters still undecided going into polling day added to the tension surrounding one of the most unpredictable French elections in decades.

Poll officials said turnout was far higher than in the last presidential vote in 2002 when anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by qualifying for the second round against Jacques Chirac.

"I didn't vote in 2002, I wasn't really bothered, and then there was the shock of the second round," said Kaouther Ben Amor, a 30-year-old medical assistant as he queued in spring sunshine to vote in Marseille.

Sarkozy and Royal are favourites to reach the runoff vote on May 6. But centrist candidate Francois Bayrou and former paratrooper Le Pen maintained hopes of a second round spot.

"Anything can happen!" declared the front-page headline of Le Parisien, while the Journal du Dimanche said: "Incredible suspense for an historic vote."   

Sarkozy has pushed a right-wing programme based on the themes of work and national identity. But critics say his tough talk could divide rather than unite the nation.

Royal, who aims to become France's first woman president, has presented herself as a nurturing mother figure and has proposed a leftist economic programme that would keep France's generous welfare system intact.

Bayrou, a former Latin teacher, wants to end the left-right political divide by forming a national unity government.

All three come from a new generation of politicians, and in a campaign that has been as much about personalities as policies, all claimed to represent a break from a discredited past.

Whoever wins the presidency will have to deal with a huge public debt, stubbornly high unemployment and seething discontent in the high-immigration suburbs which in 2005 broke out into widespread rioting.

Around 44.5 million registered voters -- an increase of 3.4 million on 2002 -- were eligible to choose a successor to Chirac, 74, the Gaullist leader who steps down next month after leading the country for 12 years.

There were widespread complaints about electronic voting machines which were used for the first time in a presidential election. Parties complained that voters often had to wait more than an hour to cast ballots and some demanded a return to paper voting for the second round.

But there was also widespread excitement over the high turnout.

In Clichy-sous-Bois, the poor Paris suburb where the riots began that spread across France in 2005, Ziad and his younger brother Shahazad said they had not voted in 2002 but this time they had picked Bayrou.

"Segolene, I just don't see her as president, Sakorzy, he's scary, so Bayrou was left," said Ziad, who declined to give his surname, as he left a polling station.

In the red-brick Pasteur primary school in the northern city of Lille, Nicolas Fouilleron, a 28-year-old medical intern, swung between "hope for change" and fatalism.

"As with every election, when it's over, nothing happens," he said.

The latest available figures said turnout at midday across France stood at 31 percent, 10 percentage points higher than at the same time in 2002.

Only the two front-runners qualify for the second round. Initial estimates of the result were expected the moment voting ends at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT).

Opinion polls have consistently given a clear first round lead to Sarkozy, the 52-year-old leader of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Royal, 53, a former environment minister, has been in second place followed by Bayrou, 55, and the 78 year-old Le Pen.

But the gap separating them has varied widely, fuelling the speculation over who will join Sarkozy in the run-off.

Also running in the election are three Trotskyites, a Communist, a Green and anti-globalisation campaigner Jose Bove. The other two are a hunters' rights candidate and a Catholic nationalist.

Rarely have candidates in a French election gone to such lengths to cast themselves as the face of change for a country plagued by doubts about its identity and its place in the world. 

Few believe that French voters are about to stage a revolution at the ballot box, but the next president will be the person who best succeeds in addressing a yearning for change.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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