Pessimistic France votes for leader

2012-05-06 13:22

Paris - Grey skies and scattered downpours failed to deter grimly determined French voters on Sunday as the nation voted for a leader to shelter them from a chill wind of austerity.

France is a pessimistic place - three-quarters of voters were unhappy with their country's direction in the last poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project - and the presidential campaign has done little to lighten the mood.

But France is also a highly political country, and turnout was high after the hard-fought election campaign polarised voters into rival camps.

While Socialist challenger Francois Hollande made "it's time for change" a theme of his speeches, both he and the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy focused more on coddling voters than trying to inspire them.

"Sarkozy's an idiot. Hollande's an idiot. I voted for the least worst," shrugged 33-year-old civil servant Aurelie Briandet, without saying which one she had backed. "I have no hope for this vote. Nothing will change."

10% unemployment rate

France's unemployment rate is 10% and rising and the growth rate is low. In eastern Paris' working-class and solidly Socialist 20th arrondissement most voters said they were backing Hollande as the man to get things on track.

"I want more justice, more fairness. There are great social disparities. We need a turnaround," said Veronique Chiloux, a 47-year-old actress who was one of a steady stream of voters at a polling station in a state nursery school.

In the plush western districts of the city, the right-wing voters scarcely mustered more enthusiasm than their leftist rivals across town.

In the 16th, near where Sarkozy cast his own vote, 42-year-old housewife Coralie Callier - perfumed and elegant in her long suede jacket and oversized sunglasses - admitted she had lost hope that the president would win.

"Even if his personality is not very attractive, he kept France strong during the crisis," she said, adding that some of her well-to-do friends had begun to consider leaving France to avoid Socialist rule.

More opposed to Hollande

Julie Hayes, a blonde 22-year-old economics student wearing a fur-collared coat, said she thought Sarkozy spent too much time "denigrating others" but backed his opposition to euthanasia and gay marriage.

"Even if I don't like him as a person, I'm going to vote for him anyway. I'm almost more opposed to Hollande than I'm in favour of Sarkozy," she said.

Despite the cynicism, turnout was expected to be as high as 80% of the 46 million-strong electorate.

Opinion polls in the past six months have suggested that voters narrowly prefer Hollande, if only to oust the unpopular Sarkozy.

Neither frontrunner polled particularly well in the first round on April 22, when a strong showing of 18% by far-right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen exposed fears over France's declining influence and relative economic strength.

Sarkozy, who scored 27.18% to Holland's 28.63% , insisted on the stump that he was the man to defend a strong France with secure frontiers against the perils of the world outside, while Hollande vowed to defend France's social protections against EU-imposed austerity.

Elimination round

In the east of the capital Severin Seaman, a 52-year-old originally from France's Caribbean overseas territory of Guadeloupe, agreed. "We need a change. Things are difficult for people, especially for the workers."

Some dissatisfied left-wing voters were tempted to vote for the far-left proposals of Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Communist-backed Left Front in the first round, and were enthused by his vision of a "citizens' revolution."

But his campaign fizzled before the first round, leaving Melenchon behind the frontrunners as well as Le Pen. He and his supporters grudgingly transferred their votes, but not their former fervour, to the centre-left Hollande.

"You know the rule. In the first round you choose, in the second you eliminate. I went to eliminate," said Melenchon after voting in the 10th district, implying that he had voted against Sarkozy rather than for Hollande.

Asked whether he would turn out later to celebrate the expected Hollande victory rally in the Place de la Bastille, Melenchon shrugged.

"I don't think so," he said.