France votes as Sarkozy faces defeat after one term
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
France's opposition Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2012 French Presidential election Francois Hollande waves on stage after the announcement of the estimated results of the first round of the French 2012 presidential election, on April 22, 2012 in Tulle, center France. AFP photoTens of millions of French voters turned out Sunday for the first round of a presidential poll that is expected to see the left oust Nicolas Sarkozy after only one turbulent term in office.
The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls predict Socialist challenger Francois Hollande will beat the right-wing incumbent.
Turnout at 5:00pm (1500 GMT), with three hours of voting to go, was strong at almost 71 percent, belying fears that a low-key campaign would be capped by mass abstentions in the vote itself.
Polling organisation IFOP predicted an overall turnout of 80 percent.
Sunday's poll will whittle down the field from 10 to two and Hollande and Sarkozy are expected to face each other in the May 6 run-off to decide who runs France, a nuclear-armed power and Europe's second largest economy.
Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.
The eurozone debt crisis and France's sluggish growth and high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.
"I have never missed a vote, but this time I feel little enthusiasm for the election," said 62-year-old retired high school teacher Isabelle Provost as she emerged into bright Paris sunshine after casting her ballot.
"Economically there is little difference between the two main candidates," she said, echoning the sentiment of many other voters of the right and the left.
If, as expected, Sarkozy polls second, he will be the only incumbent French president to lose a first round-vote in the history of the Fifth Republic, which came into being in 1958.
Hollande voted in his stronghold, the country town of Tulle in the central Correze region, where he is the local member of parliament and heads the regional council. He was warmly greeted by officials and voters alike.
"I am attentive, engaged, but first of all respectful," he told reporters. "The day ahead will be a long one, this is an important moment." Sarkozy and his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni cast their ballots in Paris' plush 16th district, a stronghold of his right-wing UMP party.
Hollande was to make a speech in Tulle minutes after polls close and official results estimates are announced on the prime-time 8:00 pm television news, while Sarkozy was to speak in Paris at around 9:00 pm.
French polling agencies are permitted to take samples directly from ballot boxes, so accurate voting estimates are made public immediately polls close.
Web-users took to Twitter using the "#RadioLondres" hashtag along with elaborate and witty codewords to forecast results without breaking France's strict laws banning such predictions until polling stations close.
Ten candidates were in the race -- Hollande and Sarkozy being trailed by far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen, hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, veteran centrist Francois Bayrou and a handful of outsiders.
For the first time, five candidates are expected to take over 10 percent of votes, a sign of how the two lead candidates have failed to energise the race.
An average of the last eight polls released ahead of the end of the first round campaign at midnight on Friday showed Hollande winning the first round with an average of 28 percent support, against 26.4 percent for Sarkozy.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was forecast to poll third with 15.75 percent, followed by Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front with 13.75 percent and centrist Francois Bayrou with 10.1 percent.
Opinion polls and campaigning were banned from midnight on Friday, and will resume on Monday in the build-up to the May 6 run-off, which Hollande is predicted to win by around 55 percent to 45.
Once the first round is out of the way, Sarkozy and Hollande face a two-week scramble for the line, including a head-to-head televised debate that could be the incumbent's last chance to change his fortunes.
Privately, Sarkozy's top supporters have begun to admit that if Sarkozy fails to regain the momentum and slip ahead of Hollande on Sunday, he will have too much ground left to make up before the May 6 showdown.