Big turnout in cliff-hanger French election

22nd April 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 22, 2007 (AFP) - French voters packed polling stations Sunday to take part in one of the most unpredictable presidential elections in decades, with millions still agonising over which candidate to back.

PARIS, April 22, 2007 (AFP) - French voters packed polling stations Sunday to take part in one of the most unpredictable presidential elections in decades, with millions still agonising over which candidate to back.

A dozen contenders were jostling to be the man or woman who will satisfy France's burning desire for change and, by midday, 31 percent of voters had turned out, far more than in 2002 when anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by qualifying for the run-off ballot.

"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 to vote in a Marseille polling station.

Rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal were favourites to make it through to the second round on May 6, but the estimated 30 percent of undecided voters left all the rival campaigns on edge.

Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou and former paratrooper Le Pen were still hopeful 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, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has pushed a right-wing programme based on the themes of work and national identity. But his tough talk sparked fears he would divide rather than unite the nation.

Royal, an army officer's daughter with an almost permanent smile, 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.

He or she will also need to soothe French angst about factories closing and shifting to China or India. 

Around 44.5 million registered voters -- an increase of 3.4 million on 2002 -- were eligible to choose a successor to Jacques Chirac, 74, who steps down next month after leading the country for 12 years. Chirac voted late Sunday morning in his Correze constituency in central France

In Argenteuil, one of the poor, high-immigration Paris suburbs where former interior minister Sarkozy is a hate figure for many after denouncing "rabble" troublemakers, 40-year-old Samir said he had just voted for Royal.

"Madame Royal will bring in more work, more liberty. Under Sarkozy, people were pushed and pushed, they had no freedom," said Samir, who did not want to give his surname, as he emerged into bright spring sunshine from the polling station set up in a gymnasium.

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), who on Sunday morning cast his vote along with his wife Cecilia at a polling station in a Paris suburb.

Royal, 53, a former environment minister who wants to be France's first woman president, 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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