Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal advance to French runoff

Preliminary results show conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal have won the first round of voting in the French presidential election. Sarkozy, the former Interior Minister, held the lead with about 30 per cent of the vote. Royal trailed with about 25 percent.

Pollsters had predicted that Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy would win in the first round, but there was also a large number of undecided voters and that raised questions about whether one of the alternate candidates would bump either of the front-runners. But neither of the potential spoilers came close. Centrist Francois Bayrou and far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen finished a distant third and fourth.

After the early results were announced, Sarkozy appealed to voters for support.

He said that by putting him in first place and Royal in second, voters have said clearly that they want a full debate between two ideas of the nation, two value systems and two ideas about politics, VOA News reports.

The balloting on Sunday was marked by high anxiety, sunny weather and an exceptionally high turnout.

More than 84 percent of France’s 44.5 million registered voters cast ballots, about 13 percentage points higher than five years ago. The lines were so long at some polling stations that they had to stay open beyond their scheduled closing time of 8 p.m.

The enormousness of the turnout was reflected in another statistic: By 5 p.m., 74 percent of France’s registered voters had cast their ballots — higher than the total percentage participation in the first round of the 2002 contest.

The election finds the country in a gloomy mood. There is little confidence that the next president will succeed in reversing the economic decline of the country, whose gross domestic product per person in the past quarter-century has fallen to seventeenth place in the world, from seventh place.

The country suffers from the fastest-growing public debt in Europe, high unemployment, entrenched protectionism, a bloated public sector and concerns about both immigration and the failure to integrate ethnic Arab and African populations, the New York Times reports.

The raucous crowd of 15,000 flag-waving supporters erupted in joy when the woman who hopes to be France's next leader turned to a tactic tried and true: disdain and defiance toward the president of the United States.

"We will not go to get down on bended knees before George Bush!" Segolene Royal proclaimed at the rally in the southwestern city of Toulouse this week, drawing roars of "Segolene — president!"

In contrast, the man who will face her in the May 6 runoff for the presidency crossed the Atlantic to shake Bush's hand last September. Nicolas Sarkozy was unapologetic when one of Royal's fellow Socialists called him the U.S. president's "lapdog" and an "American neo-conservative with a French passport."

"I'd have a harder time shaking hands with a certain number of other heads of states which are not democracies," said Sarkozy. "Profound, sincere and unfailing" French friendship with the United States "is not submission," he maintains.

Relations with America have not been the major theme of the cliffhanger French campaign: economic reform, national pride, immigration and personality differences have held sway. But it has always been under the surface, an irritant and a touchstone, and a major indication of why the supposedly conservative Sarkozy is perhaps the ultimate candidate of change, the AP reports.

Source: agencies

Prepared by Alexander Timoshik

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Author`s name Alex Naumov