France’s Sarkozy Leads Royal For May Election

Reuters, April 24, 2007

Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy has seized a strong lead over Socialist Segolene Royal in the first round of France’s presidential election and must now woo centrist voters if he is to win the run-off vote on May 6.

With almost all ballots in Sunday’s voting counted, Sarkozy had 31.1 per cent, Royal 25.8 per cent, centrist Francois Bayrou 18.5 per cent and far-right head Jean-Marie Le Pen 10.5 per cent.

Four opinion polls late Sunday showed Sarkozy, a former interior minister, looked set to win the run-off and dash Royal’s dream of becoming France’s first female president.

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Sarkozy, aiming to soften the “tough cop” image that helped him siphon votes from the far right, struck a conciliatory tone before ecstatic party faithful soon after the polls closed.

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Apart from the two-horse campaign over the next two weeks between Sarkozy and Royal, who are due to hold a televised debate on May 2, all eyes will be on centrist leader Bayrou to see if he advises his voters to back either candidate.

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Many blacks and Muslims in the troubled neighborhoods ringing French cities voted for the first time, saying they were motivated by one desire: to stop law-and-order, tough-on-immigrants Nicolas Sarkozy from becoming president.

Sarkozy, the front-runner after Sunday’s first round of voting, is deeply unpopular in housing projects populated largely by second- and third-generation immigrants, many of them Muslims from former colonies in North Africa who live mired in poverty and joblessness.

Voters in several poor districts favored Segolene Royal, the Socialist campaigning to be France’s first woman president. She was second in the overall vote, finishing ahead of 10 other candidates and earning a spot in a May 6 runoff election against the conservative Sarkozy.

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Sarkozy has reached out to minorities by promoting a policy akin to affirmative action. But many in France’s housing projectsand beyonddespise the tough police tactics he instituted as interior minister, his uncompromising language and his sometimes roughly executed drive to send illegal immigrants home.

The favorite in poor neighborhoods was Royal, who casts herself as a maternal figure in sharp contrast to Sarkozy’s law enforcer image.

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After the riots, suburban neighborhoods were targeted by an extensive voter registration campaign as one way of drawing in young minorities who feel France has never accepted them.

The riots were sparked in October 2005 by the accidental electrocution of youths who hid from police in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, and the violence spread to suburbs throughout France, fed by frustration over high unemployment and racial discrimination.

The 2002 election was another wake-up call for voters. That year, anti-immigration far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the runoff against incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Voters from across the political spectrum united behind the conservative Chirac to give him a crushing victory.

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