'I'm worried about the future - whoever wins'


JASMINA STEFANOVIC emerged from the primary school on rue du Jourdain smiling broadly, her ballot cast and her expectations high. As for many voters here in the staunchly left-wing 20th arrondissement of Paris, the question for Stefanovic, a freelance researcher, was how to choose between François Hollande and the alternatives to his left.

She went back and forth between the Socialist Party frontrunner and the left radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but in the end she chose Hollande, the man she expects to win.

Uppermost in her mind, she said, was the memory of how a badly split left-wing vote helped the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen qualify for the second round 10 years ago.

“I liked Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but after 2002 I don’t want to take that risk,” she said. “I’m very worried about the far-right’s vote. I think people are underestimating what they could achieve.”

Marc Denjean and Catherine Nyehi, a middle-aged couple who have always voted for the left, were tempted by other candidates but felt it was “too serious”, in Nyehi’s words, to risk damaging Hollande’s chances and giving Sarkozy an advantage. “We can’t continue with Sarkozy. My vote is essentially ‘no to Sarkozy’,” said Denjean.

Sentiments such as these revealed one of the paradoxes of the campaign: Hollande has held his commanding position as favourite despite generating little passion among voters. For Stefanovic, however, the focus on candidates’ personalities missed the point. “We’re not placing the future of a whole country in the hands of one man. It’s not all about charisma and all of that. It’s about a party, it’s about ideas, it’s about a team,” she said.

For Denjean, Hollande – a veteran of three decades of Socialist Party infighting, as he pointed out – had played a masterful game by allowing people to underestimate him. “Hollande is a very subtle, cultivated person. He played up the image of the ordinary guy, but it’s very strategic.”

The political map of the French capital is divided in a line that runs, broadly speaking, down the middle. Eastern districts are strongholds of the left; in 2007, for example, the 20th arrondissement voted for the socialist candidate Ségolène Royal by 65 per cent to 35 per cent for Nicolas Sarkozy, who won the election with 53 per cent of the national vote. A number of arrondissements in the centre of the city are in play, but in the west the right is dominant.

Nowhere is that more true than in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the rich western suburb where Sarkozy grew up and served as mayor between 1983 and 2002.

In brilliant afternoon sunshine yesterday, a steady stream of voters filed in to the primary school on Avenue du Roule, the elegant thoroughfare that runs through the town. If Sarkozy could expect his support to have held up anywhere, it is here in Neuilly, where he scored 86.81 per cent against Royal five years ago.

“I’m not deeply convinced by Sarkozy, but for international credibility I think he is better,” said Adrian Roser, who works in finance.

“He talks about the rest of the world, he is more aware of global and European issues.

“As for Hollande, I don’t see how he is going to reduce spending,” he said, remarking that France’s huge debt would cause problems regardless of the election result.

And yet Roser was resigned to Hollande winning. “I think the French people are fed up with Sarkozy – his face, his ideas. A lot of people are disappointed. They’re fed up.”

Colette Mahé O’Chinal, a middle-aged woman sharply dressed in a suit and shades, declined to say how she would vote, remarking only that it was more “a vote against someone I don’t want”. As a businesswoman with a keen eye on global affairs, she would like to have seen someone “with international stature” contesting the election.

“I’m worried about the future, whoever wins,” she said.

Many of Neuilly’s older residents remember Sarkozy’s term fondly and remain “viscerally attached to him”, Mahé O’Chinal remarks, but not everyone in Neuilly conforms to the stereotypes. As she made her way into the polling station, I asked Christine Barnier, who lives and works in the town, if she had made up her mind.

“I haven’t decided yet between Jean Luc-Mélenchon and Philippe Poutou,” she said, the latter a factory worker standing for the New Anti-Capitalist Party. “But you know, here it’s all Sarkozy. I’m not all that typical.”