French voters went to the polls with Nicolas Sarkozy seeking to avoid being the first incumbent president to lose in more than three decades.
The final daily tracking survey before today’s vote showed Sarkozy narrowed Socialist Francois Hollande’s lead to 52 percent to 48 percent, according to the pollster Ifop. No margin of error was provided. The gap was 10 points after Hollande’s first-round win on April 22.
“Even with the gap narrowing in the final campaign day, it will be very, very complicated for Sarkozy to win,” Leendert de Voogd, Brussels-based global head for politics at research firm TNS, said in an interview. “Never in the past eight presidential elections has a candidate been able to overturn the vote in the last three days. There is one chance out of 10 to see a Sarkozy victory.”
With joblessness at a 12-year high and the national debt at a record level, Sarkozy and Hollande have focused their battle on the economy and Europe’s debt crisis. Sarkozy’s gains have resulted in large part from appeals to followers of the anti-immigrant National Front party.
Estimated results will be announced at 8 p.m. in Paris when voting closes in the biggest cities. About 46 million people are eligible to vote.
At 5 p.m., the voter turnout was 71.96 percent, the Interior Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. That compares with 75.11 percent in the second round of the 2007 election at the same time. Both Sarkozy and Hollande voted this morning.
In his last rally, Sarkozy stuck to themes he’s favored after record gains in the first round for the National Front party: control of immigration, respect for authority, the Christian roots of France, and the value of work.
“If we don’t deal with the issues that concern the French, then others will talk in our place,” Sarkozy said in Sables d’Olonne on the Atlantic coast. “The next time it won’t be 6.5 million voting for the National Front, but many more.”
In the industrial town of Forbach, in the east, Hollande on May 4 highlighted a government bond sale this week that raised almost $10 billion at declining borrowing costs.
“Markets aren’t scared of us,” Hollande told a crowd on the town’s market square. “Two days before the elections, France borrows 10-year debt at the lowest rates in months.” He ended his campaign in Perigueux in the southwest.
Voters favor Hollande over Sarkozy by a margin of 53.5-to-46.5 percent according to TNS Sofres and by a margin of 52.5-to-47.5 percent according to both BVA and Ipsos polling companies.
The polls “show a tightening, so I say to voters, don’t let others decide for you,” Hollande said on RTL radio. “I would like an ample victory. If the French are to choose, they should do so clearly and massively.”
A victory for Hollande would make him France’s first Socialist leader since Francois Mitterrand in 1995. Mitterrand was the only candidate to vanquish an incumbent president, defeating Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981. The head of state’s mandate is for five years.
The French election coincides with other ballots today that have the potential to reshape European political map. Recession-weary Greeks will pick a new government. Local elections will test Italy’s political pulse, and voters in a northern German state may deal a symbolic blow to Merkel.
Hollande has repeatedly called for a re-negotiation of the fiscal pact agreed to by European leaders in March, saying it needs to emphasize growth. He asked that the European Investment Bank be given a greater role in spurring public spending.
Hollande has rejected a Sarkozy plan to raise sales taxes to fund a cut in payroll charges as part of an effort to make France more competitive.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble indicated his expectation that he will have a new negotiating partner. A German government spokesman confirmed said that diplomatic contact had been made with the Hollande camp.
“We’ve told Mr. Hollande that the fiscal pact has been signed and that Europe works along the principle of pacta sunt servanda,” meaning agreements must be kept, Schaeuble said in a May 4 speech in the western German city of Cologne.
If elected, Hollande is likely to phone German Chancellor Angela Merkel this evening, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Hollande’s adviser Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Hollande has pledged to meet France’s deficit reduction targets this year and next. He intends to do it through raising taxes by more than he increases spending. He also plans to tax personal earnings of more than 1 million euros ($1.3 million) at a rate of 75 percent.
“Are you aware we are in an open world?” Sarkozy asked Hollande in their May 2 debate. “There is a difference between us: you want fewer rich, I want fewer poor.”
The exchange was part of Sarkozy’s effort to vaunt his economic policy, which includes an increase in France’s retirement age, tax cuts for business and the sales tax increase planned for October.
The combined impact of the measures has kept French borrowing costs near record lows, with the 10-year bond yields at about 3 percent, he said. That’s more than Germany pays, though it’s half of Spain’s rate.
After anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen won more than 6 million votes in the first round, a record that placed her third among the candidates after Hollande and Sarkozy, the incumbent president sought to appeal to her voters.
In the debate, when Hollande asked Sarkozy why he equated all foreigners with Muslims, Sarkozy shot back that it was “denying reality” to suggest that most migrants didn’t come from North Africa.
Alienating the Center
“Muslims are treated better in France than Christians are in the Orient,” he said.
Such remarks may have alienated centrist voters. Francois Bayrou, the self-described centrist at the head of the Modem party that got 9.1 percent of the votes in the first round, said that he will vote for Hollande.
While Sarkozy’s nod to Le Pen supporters may cost him other centrist voters, his momentum in polls suggests the nationalist appeals are broader than some pollsters anticipated.
“Watch Friday’s polls closely,” said Dominique Reynie, a senior research at Paris’s Institute of Political Studies. “If they show another narrowing, then Sarko has a chance. There’s no reason why the trend wouldn’t continue through the weekend.”