FILE/FRANCE: On the eve of the French presidential election, a review of the highs and lows of this year's...
- Title: FILE/FRANCE: On the eve of the French presidential election, a review of the highs and lows of this year's campaign
- Date: 6th May 2012
- Summary: PARIS, FRANCE (RECENT) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF EIFFEL TOWER VARIOUS OF CAMPAIGN POSTERS
- Reuters ID: LVABJG3EXSCRQYQ1NUXAB8G5KHZD
- Location: France
- Country: France
- Duration: 00:00:34
- Topics: Politics
- Story Text: On the eve of the French presidential election, 40 million voters prepared on Saturday (May 5) to go to the ballot box to decide whether or not to oust President Nicolas Sarkozy and replace him Socialist Francois Hollande in the tenth election of France's Fifth Republic.
Current polls indicate that it is Hollande who will be handed the keys to the Elysee Palace on Sunday evening, Sarkozy's chances badly damaged by a presidential term mired in economic woes and faltering popularity ratings.
Sunday will mark the last round of an electoral boxing match which, for most candidates, began many months ago.
The Socialist candidate Francois Hollande was selected by the party's first ever primary late last year and has been on the campaign trail ever since.
Throughout he has presented himself as a "Mr Normal", taking on big business in a show of solidarity with the French electorate who are still suffering in the long shadow cast by the global financial crisis and euro zone troubles.
"My real enemy doesn't have a name, or a face, or a party, he'll never run as president. And so he'll never be elected, although he does govern. My enemy is the world of finance," said Hollande at his rally at Le Bourget in January and the tenor of his campaign has changed very little since.
Despite this sentiment of solidarity, Hollande has managed to acquire political enemies and one angry protester covered the presidential hopeful in flour when he was giving a speech about housing in Paris in February.
Hollande's rival, incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, did not officially declare his intention to run until rather late, but he had an early endorsement from Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor surprised many when she said at a news conference in February "I support Nicolas Sarkozy in every way, whatever he does, because we both belong to allied parties."
Sarkozy finally declared that he would stand in the middle of February.
"Yes I am a candidate for the presidential elections," he said during an interview on TF1.
The centre-right candidate took to the stage in Marseille only a few days later to address the crowd, including his wife Carla Bruni, and to play up his image as an experienced pair of hands on the tiller in financially troubled waters.
"Those who behave as if nothing serious has happened in the world over the last three years, those who behave as if the risks the French have come up against weren't that dramatic, they are lying to the French" he said, in a clear jibe at his Socialist rival who has proposed some eye-catching, if costly, measures including hiring more teachers and civil servants to ease unemployment.
No French election campaign would be complete without the main candidates attempting to woo the agricultural vote, and Sarkozy and Hollande both did their bit by visiting Parisian agricultural fairs in February, obliging the crowds of assembled journalists by patting cows and admiring pigs.
From the very beginning, Sarkozy lagged far behind Hollande. A survey by pollster Ifop published a week before the first-round vote on April 22 found 64 percent of respondents are unhappy with him as President and only 36 percent satisfied, despite his deft handling of a string of international crises.
Accordingly, he has not been given an overwhelmingly positive reception everywhere on the campaign trail and he was booed and jostled as he attempted a walkabout in Bayonne in southern France early on in the campaign.
One of his main challenges has, as ever, been to woo France's hard-right voters who might otherwise fall for the charms of the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen.
The candidate, whose father famously reached the second round of the 2002 election at the helm of the same party, had highly-publicised problems securing enough endorsements from elected officials to get her name on the ballot paper this year.
Once she was in the running, Le Pen fought a fierce battle for third place with the dark-horse of the election campaign, former Socialist turned hard-left champion, Jean-Luc Melenchon whose rhetoric of revolution galvanised the left.
"The centre of the world -- the United States of America -- is in a crisis of supremacy. The economic model it relies on is in crisis," he said at a meeting in the east of Paris in April and, with the various factions of the far left united behind him and opinion poll ratings which frequently hovered around 14 percent, people listened.
Only days after its official start, the campaign was suspended as France was shaken by events in Toulouse, when al Qaeda-inspired gunman Mohammed Merah shot seven people, including three Jewish children and three French soldiers, before himself going down in a hail of bullets after a thirty hour stand-off with the police outside his flat.
Once more questions of security and terrorism were back on the agenda and Sarkozy was criticised by some on the left who claimed he was taking advantage of the national tragedy.
In a show of unity, Francois Hollande was given the blessing of his former partner and the 2007 presidential contender, Segolene Royal, who made an -- albeit brief -- appearance at an Hollande rally in Rennes.
At the start of the final week of campaigning before the first round, both Sarkozy and Hollande staged huge open-air at rallies at different locations in Paris, unusual for mainstream political parties in French elections. Both camps claimed to have gathered together over 100,000 supporters and both were looking to build up a head of steam to catapult them through the first round.
As over eighty percent of those registered to vote made their way to the polling stations on Sunday (April 22) -- a higher turnout than most polls had predicted -- so too did the candidates.
When the preliminary results were announced later that evening, pollsters all over France heaved a sigh of relief as Hollande came out on top. Sarkozy became the first sitting President seeking re-election in recent history to be beaten in the first round.
On the left, the Melenchon factor appeared to fizzle out and the far-left candidate secured a lower score than many in his movement had expected and hoped for.
But the real surprise of the night was undoubtedly the performance of Marine Le Pen's National Front, who secured their highest ever vote in a presidential election.
The Queen of France's far right found herself appointed kingmaker in the second round as Sarkozy talked about immigration and national identity in an attempt to woo her supporters -- a jerk to the right that alienated many on France's centre ground.
Le Pen herself held a rally on May Day to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of French national heroine Joan of Arc, during which she declared defiantly that she would be voting for neither candidate in the second round.
Hollande used May Day to pay homage to former Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy at an understated affair in Nevers.
Meanwhile Sarkozy held a huge rally in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower which he claimed was attended by 200,000 people. Political enemies accused him of one-upmanship, hijacking what is traditionally a day for demonstrations of solidarity with workers but he appeared undisturbed by his critics.
"Three days to win. Long live the Republic, long live France," he said to the vast crowds.
The long-anticipated television debate between the remaining two candidates was held on Wednesday -- a bad-tempered encounter which failed to give Sarkozy a much-needed boost in the polls. Yet he remained satisfied the following morning, saying he was "pretty much" content with how it had gone.
Despite the incumbent President's attitude, commentators are agreed that with his current poll ratings, Sarkozy faces an uphill battle if he is to secure re-election when the French people give their final verdict on Sunday (May 6).
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