PARIS (Reuters) – France looked set to crown Francois Hollande as its first Socialist president in nearly two decades in an election on Sunday, marking a shift to the left at the heart of Europe and heralding a fight back against German-led austerity.
Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, swamped by anger at a surge in unemployment during his five-year term, faced being the 11th euro zone leader to be swept from power by the economic crisis after final opinion polls placed Hollande between four and eight points ahead.
A wide margin of victory would give Hollande greater authority to pursue his promise to temper unpopular German-led austerity, which sparked protests across southern Europe last week, and refocusing economic policy on fostering growth.
In a decisive day for the recession-hit single currency area, Greece‘s mainstream political parties were punished in a parliamentary election for rising economic misery due to IMF-imposed spending cuts, exit polls showed.
Hollande cast his vote for the presidential runoff in the central town of Tulle, where he was mayor for seven years, shaking hands and kissing voters, many of whom he knows personally. “I am confident. I am sure,” he told Reuters as he ate later in a local restaurant packed with Tulle residents.
In Paris’s Bastille square, a flashpoint of the 1789 French Revolution and the Socialists’ traditional gathering point for electoral celebrations, crowd barriers were already laid out in anticipation of an Hollande victory. Party supporters gathered in excitement two hours before the last polls closed, and giant television screens were erected.
In Tulle, Hollande supporters drove around the town honking car horns.
Sarkozy was greeted by cheering crowds when he arrived to vote at a school in an up-market Paris neighbourhood near the home of his wife Carla Bruni, a former supermodel.
“We are going to win” chanted supporters as the conservative leader briefly clasped the hands of well-wishers, but the glum faces of his advisers arriving at the Elysee presidential palace in late afternoon told a different story.
With 46 million people registered to vote, polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and closed in most places at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) and two hours later in big cities.
Interior ministry figures showed 72.0 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) despite wet weather in much of the country, topping the 70.6 percent registered at the same stage of the first round on April 22.
Reliable projections of the result based on a partial count were due as soon as the last polling stations closed. Media that publish exit polls or partial results in France before then risk fines and legal action.
Hollande, a mild-mannered career politician, has held a steady lead for weeks after outlining a comprehensive programme in January based on raising taxes, especially on high earners, to finance spending and keep the public deficit capped.
As much as his own programme, he is benefiting from anti-Sarkozy sentiment due to the incumbent’s abrasive personal style and to anger about the same economic gloom that has swept aside leaders from Britain to Portugal.
“It will be close, much closer than polls have shown,” said Moana de la Maisonneuve, 41, a commodities sales manager who voted for Sarkozy but was pessimistic about his chances. “The tough thing for Sarkozy is that people are focusing on his personality, rather than his policies.”
SARKOZY NEEDS MIRACLE
Despite shaving a couple of points off Hollande’s lead in the last days of a frenetic campaign, Sarkozy’s own aides privately acknowledged it would take a miracle for him to clinch a second term.
“I’d say he has a one chance in six,” a member of Sarkozy’s inner circle told Reuters on condition of anonymity before campaigning ended on Friday.
BNP Paribas economist Dominique Barbet said that uncertainty about the election outcome was extremely low.
“Both Sarkozy and Hollande would be capable managers of the French economy but Sarkozy has created too much discord … That is why I voted Hollande,” said photographer Gilles Leimdorfer.
In Athens, French overseas voters voiced hope that a Hollande victory would temper Germany’s drive for budgetary discipline which many say is driving a number of euro zone countries into recession.
“Enough is enough. There is too much austerity,” 72-year-old Maria said, voting for Hollande at the French consulate.
Sarkozy launched his campaign late and swerved hard to the right as he tried to win back low-income voters that polls show have ditched him for either the radical left or extreme right.
His aggressive rallies and promises to rein in immigrant numbers, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition of getting benefits did not reduce Hollande’s lead. Sarkozy surprised many by failing to land a knockout punch on his rival in a televised debate.
In two further blows in the last days of the race, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who came third in the first round with 17.9 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou, who came fifth with 9.1 percent, refused to endorse Sarkozy.
The election comes at a crucial time for the euro zone as France, Europe’s No. 2 economy, is a vital partner for Berlin.
If Hollande is elected, joining a minority of left-wing governments in Europe, he wants to renegotiate a budget discipline treaty signed by 25 EU leaders in March. Berlin has made the pact a pre-condition of aid for struggling states.
The Socialist plans to visit centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel within days of the election to discuss his ideas and hoped to speak to her by telephone on Sunday evening, Socialist Jean-Marc Ayrault, tipped as a possible prime minister, said.
France is grappling with feeble growth and 10 percent unemployment, a gaping trade deficit and high state spending that is straining public finances and was a factor in Standard & Poor’s removing its triple-A credit rating.
While financial markets are warming to Hollande’s growth agenda, given growing support elsewhere in Europe, analysts say he would need to reassure investors quickly about his economic plans as fears resurface over the euro zone’s debt woes.
French 10-year bond yields fell to 2.87 percent on Friday, a level not seen since early October. Yet French debt could remain vulnerable to selling pressure, as markets and credit rating agencies wait to be convinced of his fiscal credentials.
While economists want Hollande to trim over-optimistic growth forecasts and impose spending cuts, political analysts fear this would be difficult with left-wing voters hoping he will raise the minimum wage and reverse a recent sales-tax rise.
Little known outside France, Hollande would soon have his diplomatic skills tested if he wins, with a Chicago NATO summit in late May and a Group of 20 summit in Mexico in late June. The former Socialist Party chief has never held a ministerial post.
(Additional reporting by John Irish, Elizabeth Pineau, Morad Azzouz and Heleen de Geest in Tulle, Ingrid Melander in Athens and Geert De Clercq and Paul Tayor in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Catherine Bremer; Editing by Paul Taylor)