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Socialist Hollande Wins First Round of French Presidential Election

Left is ascendant in France, but Le Pen's far-right surge spells lurking problems

Common Dreams staff

French President and UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, left, finished behind France's Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande in the first round of the presidential vote on Sunday, April 22, 2012. The two will face off in a May 6 runoff. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Socialist candidate Francois Hollande bested incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday in the first round of voting in France's presidential elections.  Final results from the Interior Ministry showed Hollande had 28.6 percent of the ballots cast and Sarkozy 27.2 percent.

Hollande said that Sarkozy had trapped France in a spiral of austerity and job losses, and called for the European response to the debt crisis to be more pro-growth. He has promised to increase government spending as a way to face the unemployment and economic crisis head-on.

Far-right leader of the National Front party, Marine Le Pen, arrived in a surprising third-place with nearly 18% of the vote, and those to the left of Hollande were disappointed that their candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came in with not more than 12%. Mélenchon had dominated recent headlines with passionate rallies against capitalism, but failed in his ultimate aim of beating Le Pen and wiping out the extreme right. Mélenchon admitted the results were disappointing, but that they proved he had been right to campaign strongly in order to stop the destructive rise of the far-right sentiment. In his speech on Sunday he asked but one thing of his supporters. "I just ask you to mobilize," he said.

Voter turnout was surprisingly high, at more than 80 per cent, officials said.

“All men and women on the left need to mobilize and unify around François Hollande because the danger of the right and far-right remains” --Marie-George Buffet

Hollande now seems well positioned to take the presidency, but speculation was rampant Monday morning about what Le Pen's showing says about the French electorate. Running on an anti-immigrant platform and calling for a French withdrawal from the Euro, Le Pen supporters saw Sarkozy borrow some of the National Front's talking points in his speech on Sunday. "National Front voters must be respected, they've expressed a choice. It's a vote of suffering, a vote of crisis. Why insult them?" Sarkozy said to reporters outside his Paris campaign headquarters.

French Trade and Tourism Minister Frederic Lefebvre, a Sarkozy supporter, told CNN on Sunday, "Now, we have to listen to the expectations of the far right."

But the French left was quickly mobilizing to unify behind Hollande, according to a report in France24. “All men and women on the left need to mobilize and unify around François Hollande because the danger of the right and far-right remains,” said Marie-George Buffet, a past presidential candidate for France’s Communist Party and an ally of Melenchon.

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Socialist challenger Francois Hollande has narrowly won the first round of France's presidential election, setting himself up for a May 6 runoff with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hollande beat the conservative Sarkozy in Sunday's 10-candidate first round by 28.6 per cent to 27.1 per cent, the interior ministry said, with 99 per cent of votes counted.

Marine Le Pen's National Front came third with 18 per cent, the highest result so far for the far-right party.

Le Pen's surprisingly strong showing could now throw open opinion poll projections that had given Hollande a 10-point lead in the runoff.

Speaking to his supporters, Hollande said he would refocus Europe's crisis response on growth and jobs if he won the presidency.

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France 24: Left rallies behind Hollande

Candidates on the left quickly expressed their support for François Hollande in the second round. Green candidate Eva Joly went on the record as saying she backed Hollande’s presidential bid, echoing other prominent Greens.

Melenchon told supporters rallied on Place de Stalingrad in the north-east of Paris that their vote would be key in the final outcome, urging them to “come together on May 6 to beat Sarkozy”. Phillippe Poutou, the candidate of the New Anti-capitalist Party, also called on voters to “kick out” Sarkozy from office.

FRANCE 24's James Andre reports from a polling station in western Paris where French President Nicolas Sarkozy cast his vote Sunday.

Marie-George Buffet, a past presidential candidate for France’s Communist Party and an ally of Melenchon, delivered a clearer endorsement for the Socialist candidate. “All men and women on the left need to mobilize and unify around François Hollande because the danger of the right and far-right remains,” she said.

Accordign to an Ipsos survey, 86% of people who voted for Melenchon in the first round said they would probably vote for François Hollande in the second round. That compared with 60% of Le Pen supporters who said they would cast a run-off ballot for Nicolas Sarkozy.

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CNN: France's Sarkozy beaten into 2nd place

Sunday's turnout was 81%, with more than 12.5 million votes cast, according to the interior ministry. That marks a drop from 2007, when 84% of the nation's voters went to the polls, though key players from both Hollande and Sarkozy's camps described it as a "strong turnout" indicative of citizens' high interest in the race.

"I'm asking you not to drag your feet," Melenchon told his backers. "I just ask you to mobilize."

Especially with neither of them close to a majority, who assumes the presidency hinges on what support Sarkozy or Hollande can get from those who didn't back them Sunday.

In his speech Sunday night, Melenchon urged his supporters to "fight against Sarkozy" -- noting that he's not "asking for anything in exchange" from Hollande for siding with him.

"I'm asking you not to drag your feet," Melenchon told his backers. "I just ask you to mobilize."

A chief contrast in the two remaining contenders' economic approaches is that Hollande generally supports "more government action to stimulate the economy" whereas Sarkozy favors policies such as lowering some taxes and possibly repealing the mandated 35-hour work week, said Michael Leruth, who teaches a course about the election at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

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The Guardian: Socialist challenger beats Nicolas Sarkozy, but final runoff vote on knife edge after historic high vote for Marine Le Pen

Sarkozy's total will be seen as a personal failure. It is the first time an outgoing president has failed to win a first-round vote in the past 50 years and makes it harder for Sarkozy to regain momentum. The final vote between Hollande and Sarkozy now depends on a delicate balance of how France's total of rightwing and leftwing voters line up.

Hollande told cheering supporters in his rural fiefdom of Corrèze in south-west France that he was best-placed to lead France towards change, saying the vote marked a "rejection" of Sarkozy and a "sanction" against his five years in office. He said France clearly wanted to "close one page and open another". He reiterated his opposition to austerity alone as the only way out of Europe's crisis: "My final duty, and I know I'm being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment."

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