First Round Of Voting Begins In France

In France, residents go to the polls Sunday in the first round of a two-part presidential election. The top two vote-getters from Sunday's balloting go to a runoff on May 6. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy is trailing Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The French have begun voting in their presidential election. Today, on the first round of a two-round ballot, voters will choose among 10 candidates. The top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff two weeks from now on May 6th. A deeply unpopular president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been fighting for his political life. Polls show him consistently behind his socialist rival, Francois Hollande. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has been following the campaign, and she joins us now from Paris. Eleanor, from this side of the Atlantic, Sarkozy seemed like this energetic, great international statesman who kind of placed France at the forefront of the international scene. Is that not how he's been perceived in France?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right, Rachel. It's kind of even difficult to explain to foreigners. You know, the man who came in and fixed the Georgia crisis with Russia in 2008, who saved the Libyan people from being slaughtered by doing this intervention with NATO, you know, who was with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who was the main motivator behind, you know, getting this European debt crisis under control, people seem to have forgotten that, or they don't care. He's being judged on the economy. And never mind the fact that it was a global financial crisis; he's just taking the blame for it. You know, there's not any more jobs than there were five years ago when he took power, you know, French industry is outsourcing. So people are really angry. And you add that to his irksome personal style and that's made him very unpopular. People think he has been, you know, he's seen as an aggressive man, hyperactive, all over the place. He's seen as divisive, dividing the French. And there's so much animosity towards him personally that it's just built up and now he's just a very unpopular candidate.

MARTIN: OK. So, who's his main rival, Francois Hollande? The polls are predicting that he's going to win this.

BEARDSLEY: That's right. He's kind of unremarkable. He's never held a national office, he's not known internationally. He's a congressman from a rural district. He ran the Socialist Party for 10 years, so he's even sort of a party apparatchik. He's jokingly called flamby or flanby, which is a French pudding wobbly dessert. But I guess his biggest asset is that he's running against Sarkozy. He calls himself Mr. Normal. And so people are ready for just a presidential president; somebody who's normal, somebody who's not running all over the place. This being said, he's not a dummy. I mean, he's a very intelligent person, very witty, he went to all the French top schools - so he's no idiot. But I think his biggest asset right now is that he's not Sarkozy and he's just a normal man.

MARTIN: Lastly, Eleanor, can you give us a sense of what the campaign has been like and who some of the other candidates are?

BEARDSLEY: Like the French have woken up and discovered that their country is linked to global financial markets, and there's a lot of animosity about that. People are wondering, you know, all of the sudden, the AAA, everybody knew what it was. And, you know, they were saying we don't want ratings agencies to tell us, you know, what we do. So, there's been a big backlash against capitalism. So, actually, a lot of the other candidates - there's 10 candidates running today - many of them have anti-capitalist programs, and actually two candidates on the far left or the far right who were very much against the global economy and protecting France, they're vying for third place right now. So, they're saying that depending on who gets that third place, that could influence the second round.

MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting from Paris. Thanks so much, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel.

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