Suspense High in French Presidential Elections

Nearly 45 million French voters are expected to cast their ballots Sunday in the first round of an election to replace President Jacques Chirac. Voter turnout — and indecision — is expected to be high.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The French go to the polls today in the first round of their country's presidential election. The vote is being described as a turning point for France. The top three candidates, all in their 50s, represent a change in style and generation. It's the first time that France will elect a president born after World War II.

Eleanor Beardsley is in France. Eleanor, of all of the candidates, which one is most likely to advance to the second round, which is going to be held two weeks from now?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Well, the election is still a big surprise. One of the main newspapers, the headline today was anything can happen. But this being said, the frontrunner, Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative, is probably the most likely to make it to the second round. He's consistently been in the lead.

Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, she generated a lot of excitement in the beginning, but she slipped some in the polls. And centrist candidate Francois Bayrou is now nipping at her heels. He's sort of come out of nowhere to be in third place. And then of course, there's the dark horse of every election: far right, anti-immigrant candidate, Jean-Marie La Pen. And while we think maybe Sarkozy will make it to the second round, we're not sure which of the other three candidates will join him.

HANSEN: Those are the candidates. What is the election all about?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the election is about change for France; different visions for France's future, and those different visions are incarnated by the different candidates. It's really been an election campaign based on personalities. Segolene Royal is the nurturing Socialist. She talks a lot about fairness, raising the minimum wage, helping workers that get laid off. One of her campaign slogans was, "A fairer France is a stronger France."

Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative, is all about putting France back to work again. He's criticized the 35 hours. The thing about Sarkozy is you either love him or you hate him. His supporters say he's the only one who can reform France, but others fear him. They say he has a dark side and that he's very agitated.

Then there's Francois Bayrou, who has been the election surprise. He's a centrist candidate. He says he wants to bring France together again. He says France has been divided between left and right for the past 30 years. He calls it a Berlin wall that has paralyzed the country. So he says he can bring out the best on both sides and make France work again.

HANSEN: Last time, the country was pretty surprised by the dark horse far right when it made it to the second round. Is that likely to happen again?

BEARDSLEY: It's not very likely, but it is possible. Jean-Mari Le Pen - his poll ratings are always underestimated because people don't want to admit that they're voting for him. So whether he's going to make it or not, the thought of what happened last time has had a huge psychological impact on this campaign. Voters say they're not going to waste their votes on the small fringe candidates in the first round, which is what they usually do, and that's what Jean-Marie Le Pen squeak through last time.

A lot of voters are saying, we're going straight out to vote for the mainstream candidates because we don't want to see a fringe right-wing candidate make it to the second round.

HANSEN: Eleanor Beardsley in France. Eleanor, thanks a lot.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

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