France heads to the polls in first round of presidential elections
With 10 candidates running for president in France, it is unlikely that anyone will receive 50% of the vote. That means that the top two finishers from today's first round of voting will face off on May 6 to determine the winner.
Those two candidates are almost certain to be incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy and Socialist François Hollande. And if polls can be believed, Sarkozy is in deep trouble. Hollande has a comfortable lead for the May 6 runoff election and the current president's chances are dimming as time goes on.
At his last rally in Nice on Friday night, just hours before campaigning officially stopped, Sarkozy told his supporters that "the moment of truth" had arrived.
Earlier Friday, in an uncharacteristically contrite interview with a French radio station, Sarkozy apologized for the "mistakes" he made following his election triumph in 2007, acknowledging that he did not immediately understand "the symbolic dimension of the role of president".
The 2012 French presidential campaign has shaped up as a referendum on Sarkozy's personal style, especially his perceived penchant for a flashy lifestyle that earned him the moniker, the "bling bling president".
The wave of "anti-Sarkozyism" - as it's known in France - has been seized on by Hollande, who has consistently led the polls in the run-up to the election. Polls have shown both Sarkozy and Hollande capturing slightly less than 30% of the votes, with Hollande a few points ahead.
At his final campaign stop in the north-eastern industrial town of Charleville-Mezieres on Friday, Hollande noted that, "This is a region that put its faith in Nicolas Sarkozy, who came here making speeches on industry, jobs, workers. Everybody can see the scale of the disappointment," he said before adding, ""Now, it's the left's turn to govern the country."
Sarokozy's extremely modest reforms in education and labor that sought to roll back some of the nanny state's protections for perpetual students and lazy workers were met with anger and opposition by the left in France. Now, apparently, they are going to get their wish and install the first socialist since Mitterand in the presidential palace.
That's not all. The economic woes have radicalized politics to some degree:
The 2012 campaign has seen the rise of far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon - who has polled between 12 to 15% of the vote - competing with the far-right's Le Pen for a third place in Sunday's race.
With his fiery rhetoric, Melenchon has built an alliance of Communists, Trotskyites and anti-capitalists, drawing huge crowds at his rallies.
Experts say that if Melenchon wins third place in Sunday's vote, it would encourage Hollande to veer further to the left ahead of the May 6 knock-out round.
This is the "stick it to the banks and the rich" crowd who don't care if the euro crisis brings down the French banking system and would actually like to see sovereign debt forgiveness across the continent. A massive increase in social spending is also on their agenda, and the deficit be damned.
Hollande, like Mitterand, appears to be more flexible than many on the hard left, but is still likely to leave the nanny state as it is, while restoring the protections Sarkozy did away with. He is constrained from increasing spending due to his pledge to balance the budget (he would do it through growth rather than budget cutting).
Sarkozy meanwhile, only has himself to blame for his electoral predicament. He managed to offend just about everybody at some point in the last 5 years and voters were turned off by his glamorous lifestyle, which led to the nickname "the bling-bling president."
So, the French are ready to elect someone wedded to the same policies that got them in a fiscal crunch in the first place. Good luck with that, guys
Angela Merkel in Germany is about to lose her partner in trying to save the EU. Whether Hollande is up to the challenge, we will probably discover shortly.