Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist competitor Ségolène Royal both survived the first round of France's presidential elections on Sunday. The former interior minister appears to be the frontrunner.
French voters on Sunday proved themselves less fickle than in recent elections and sent the two front runners in this year's presidential campaign through to a run-off scheduled for May 6.
Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy garnered 31.1 percent of the vote followed by Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal with 25.8 percent amid almost record turnout, according to results released by the Interior Ministry early Monday. Only overseas votes remained to be counted.
Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who many had thought could sneak past Royal and into the run-off, came in third place with 18.5 percent. Far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose surprising success in 2002 propelled him into the second round against outgoing President Jacques Chirac, polled a distant fourth with 10.5 percent of the vote.
Already on Sunday evening, the two remaining candidates began positioning themselves for the winner-take-all vote in two weeks, with Sarkozy seemingly interested in softening his "tough cop" image in an effort to woo centrist voters now apparently up for grabs.
"The France I dream of is a France that leaves no one behind, a France which is like a family, where the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most fragile have the right to as much love, as much respect and as much attention as the strongest," he told gathered party faithful soon after the polls closed.
Royal, who is trying to become France's first-ever female president, stayed on message on Sunday, reminding her supporters that she was out to bring positive change to France. "I extend my hand to all those women and men who think, as I do, that it is not only possible but urgent to abandon a system that no longer works," she said at Socialist Party headquarters in Paris. The run-off, she continued, "offers a clear choice between two very different paths."
Opinion polls late on Sunday showed that Sarkozy, formerly France's interior minister under Chirac, is the favorite to beat Royal for the presidency, but the result will likely hinge on which candidate is more successful in wooing those voters who cast their ballots for centrist Bayrou. "Bayrou will be the most sought-after politician in the next two weeks," said Europe 1 radio according to Reuters, with the Catholic daily La Croix adding: "The second round will be decided in the center."
Parties to the left of Royal scored 11 percent in Sunday's vote and they immediately swung their support behind her, but with France seemingly having become more conservative in recent years, she will need the support of a large chunk of the center. Sarkozy, for his part, will likely be able to count on the voters from the far right. Bayrou has not said who he would urge his supporters to vote for in the second round, though during the campaign he had voiced the possibility of an alliance with the left.
Sunday's balloting restored the traditional split in France between the left and the right. In 2002, low turnout and bickering among leftist parties led to a run-off pitting conservative Jacques Chirac against the far-right Le Pen. Chirac trounced Le Pen in the run-off, but the election left a sour aftertaste. This time around, it seemed many voters were intent on avoiding a repeat and fully 84.6 percent of those eligible cast their ballots on Sunday, just shy of the record 84.8 percent turnout in 1965 -- France's first direct presidential election pitting Charles de Gaulle against Francois Mitterrand in an election de Gaulle went on to win.
The May 6 poll will see French voters deciding between two candidates who have radically different visions of France's future. Though both would like to see major changes introduced in La Grande Nation, Sarkozy would like to slim down France's economy, ditch the 35-hour work week, cut taxes and loosen labor laws in an effort to jump-start the country's sluggish growth. Royal seeks to boost government spending, and preserve France's generous worker protection laws.
Both, though, have been dogged by questions as to their suitability for the post. Sarkozy has been seen as a ruthless politician fueled by personal ambition. During the 2005 riots in suburbs across France -- unrest that was largely triggered by discontent among France's immigrant population -- Sarkozy famously referred to the rioters as "scum" and said he would "pressure wash" France's cities. He has also been accused of being too arrogant to run the country.
Royal, for her part, lacks political experience, having held only junior government posts and many in France question whether she is "presidential" enough. She has also committed a number of foreign policy gaffes, including praising the Chinese for their quick and efficient justice system during a trip to Beijing.
Despite Sarkozy's current lead in the polls, his victory on May 6 is far from a slam dunk. Twice in the last five elections, the round-one winner lost the run-off. But whoever wins in two weeks, it will represent a major generational change in French politics; the new leader will be France's first post-war president who did not live through World War II.