PARIS (Reuters) – Voters angry over unemployment and economic gloom turned out in large numbers on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election that could make conservative Nicolas Sarkozy the first French leader to miss re-election in more than 30 years.
In a contest driven as much by a dislike of his showy style as by policy differences, Sarkozy and Socialist rival Francois Hollande are poised to edge out eight other candidates to reach a May 6 runoff, where polls give Hollande a double-digit lead.
Hollande, 57, wants higher taxes on the wealthy to fund state-aided job creation, including a 75 percent top tax rate on income above 1 million euros ($1.32 million).
If he wins the decisive second round in two weeks, it could change the direction of Europe as Hollande has pledged to renegotiate a German-inspired budget discipline treaty he says would drive the continent into a prolonged recession.
He would be only the second left-wing leader since the Fifth Republic led by a strong presidency was founded in 1958, and the first since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
“What we really need are jobs, lower prices and better living conditions,” said Kathy Fontaine, an unemployed woman in the northern town of Cambrai, who said she had switched her vote to the Socialists after five years of disappointment under Sarkozy.
Far-right anti-immigration campaigner Marine Le Pen was expected to finish third, well behind the leaders, with hard left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon fourth and centrist Francois Bayrou fifth, according to the final opinion polls last week.
Polls closed at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) in most towns and rural areas with big cities closing at 8 p.m., when first reliable projections of the result based on a partial count are released.
Hollande voted early on Sunday in Tulle, a town in central France where he serves as the head of local government for the surrounding rural Correze region.
“Here’s hoping,” he whispered in the ear of an old lady. His partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, admitted to reporters she was “super-stressed”.
Pre-election surveys predicting low turnout were not borne out: 70.6 percent of the electorate had voted by 5 p.m., the interior ministry said, just below the 73.9 percent recorded at the same point in the 2007 election, the highest in two decades.
Pollster IFOP estimated the final turnout would be 80 percent, one of the highest in decades.
Hollande has called on his supporters to take nothing for granted, mindful of a fiasco for the left in 2002 when record low turnout saw the Socialist candidate pushed out in the first round by the far right. But pollsters say the left has bigger reserves of votes among the minor candidates than Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, also 57, says he is a safer pair of hands for future economic turmoil. But many of the workers and young voters drawn to his 2007 pledge of more pay for more work are deserting him as jobless claims hit a 12 year high.
He and first lady Carla Bruni, who was sombrely dressed but smiling, voted in an affluent Paris neighborhood, shaking hands with bystanders but leaving without comment.
Nicole Delpierre, a bar manager voting in Cambrai, said she would keep faith with Sarkozy rather than the untested Hollande, who has never served as a minister.
“Sarkozy has far more experience of politics and he did quite a lot to solve the crisis. Now we need more jobs and a better economy,” she said.
But many voters expressed a distaste for a president who has come to be seen as flashy after his highly publicized marriage to former supermodel Bruni early in his term, public flashes of temper and coziness with billionaire businessmen.
“Sarkozy is divisive. Hollande is reassuring,” said Helene Boudot, 85, who was glad to have been released from hospital in time to vote in her village of Chailland in western France.
EYES ON THIRD PLACE
Some investors will be watching to see how well the radical Communist-backed Melenchon performs, fearing Hollande could be dependent on the hard left for a parliamentary majority.
Melenchon, whose breakout has been the surprise of the campaign, advocates a “citizens’ revolution” and has drawn tens of thousands to hear him rail against inequality and job losses at giant outdoor rallies.
Before election weekend the risk premium investors charge to hold French debt over safe-haven German bonds rose to nearly 1.50 percentage points, betraying fears that Hollande could be dragged leftwards by a strong vote for Melenchon.
Sarkozy has proven to be a more aggressive campaigner than Hollande, who has led in the polls for months and appeared determined above all to avoid mistakes.
The president’s punch at the podium combined with his firm handling of a shooting drama in southwest France in March saw him claw back some ground in opinion polls last month. But he has since slipped back, leaving Hollande 10 or more points ahead in surveys for the deciding runoff.
Latest opinion polls put Hollande a whisker ahead for the first round, with an average 28 percent support to Sarkozy’s 27 percent. Le Pen, who wants to curb immigration and leave the euro, stood at around 16 percent and Melenchon at 14.
Around half a million expatriate French are expected to vote, up from some 350,000 in the 2007 election. Surveys show them shifting to the left.
“Even though we live abroad we still care about our country and it’s not in a good state,” said Stephanie, who queued up for over an hour with her two children to vote in London.
Pascale, a mother of three, voted for Melenchon at the French consulate in Athens. “The crisis made me think about the role of politics, banks and finance,” she said. “In this period of crisis, I voted further left.”
French law bans publication of any results in France before polls close, and the polling watchdog has threatened to punish any media breaking that embargo with fines and legal action.
In the last election, French voters hungry for information crashed the websites of several Swiss and Belgian newspapers, which ran early forecasts again on Sunday.
France is struggling with weak economic growth, a gaping trade deficit, 10 percent unemployment and strained public finances that prompted ratings agency Standard & Poor’s to cut the country’s triple-A credit rating in January.
Sarkozy has played up his credibility as an economic steward after he helped steer the euro zone through the worst of its crisis last year. Hollande has blamed him for the parlous state of France’s public finances and for the rating downgrade.
Some investors see a risk that Hollande’s focus on tax rises over spending cuts, his slower timetable for balancing the budget and his plan to raise taxation on the financial sector, could drive up French bond yields.