Sarkozy faces Hollande in run-off


François Hollande moved a step closer to the French presidency after he beat the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of the election yesterday, but a surprisingly high vote for the far-right left some uncertainty hanging over the campaign.

Mr Sarkozy, facing a difficult balancing act as campaigning restarted today, hammered home pledges to get tough on immigration and security in an attempt to attract both the far-right and centrist voters he needs to win the May 6 run-off.

"Today, I return to the campaign trail," Mr Sarkozy said in a statement. "I will continue to uphold our values and commitments: respect for our borders, the fight against factories moving abroad, controlling immigration, the security of our families."

Mr Hollande narrowly beat Mr Sarkozy by 28.6 per cent to 27.1 per cent, and the two will meet in a head-to-head decider on May 6th. The Socialist Party is seeking to return to the presidency for the first time since François Mitterrand’s re-election in 1988.

In her first presidential election since taking over as National Front leader last year, Marine Le Pen caused the shock of the night by winning 18.5 per cent of the vote – pushing the left radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon into fourth place on 11 per cent and beating the score that put her father, Jean-Marie, into the run-off in 2002.

Ms Le Pen had called for a referendum on withdrawing from the euro and proposed reducing annual immigration by 95 per cent, while shifting the party towards traditionally left-wing economic positions and rhetoric.

Speaking to jubilant supporters in Paris last night, she said her high score was a boost for France and urged her supporters to “keep on fighting”. The Sarkozy and Hollande camps said the result left the race open, with almost half of those who voted having cast their ballots for neither frontrunner.

But the result is a setback for Mr Sarkozy, who had hoped to contain the far-right vote and inject momentum into his campaign. In a nod towards the far-right voters he will now need to attract, the president vowed to tighten border controls, tighten immigration rules and take new steps to fight crime. “In a world that is changing so fast, people’s concern about preserving their way of life is the central issue of this election,” he said.

His strong showing brings Mr Hollande closer to becoming only the second left-wing head of state since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

Addressing supporters in his political base in Corrèze department, he said he had become the candidate “of all the forces who want to turn one page and begin another”.

Mr Hollande, who has pledged to seek renegotiation of the EU fiscal treaty, said his priority if elected would be to give new focus to Europe’s efforts to spur growth and create jobs. “My duty, and I know I’m being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment,” he said.

Attention will now turn to the three candidates whose voters will decide the winner. Mr Mélenchon, whose fiery speeches and calls for “civil insurrection” attracted the campaign’s most passionate crowds, called on his supporters to vote for Mr Hollande, which they are expected to do in overwhelming numbers.

The centrist François Bayrou remains in an influential position despite seeing his 2007 score more than halve to 8.5 per cent. He has not said whether he will endorse a candidate.

One of the major questions is what the 18.5 per cent of voters who chose Ms Le Pen yesterday will do on May 6th.

An Ipsos opinion poll yesterday found that 60 per cent of her voters would switch to Mr Sarkozy and 18 per cent to Mr Hollande while 22 per cent would abstain.

Turnout, at about 80 per cent, was surprisingly high. Overall turnout in the 2007 election was nearly 84 per cent, the highest figure since the 1970s.

Additional reporting: Reuters