The Beginning of the End for Sarkozy?

In France’s first round of presidential voting, Francois Hollande starts strong.

François Hollande votes in Tulle, France
François Hollande votes in Tulle, France

Photograph by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images.

Socialist François Hollande leads the first round of voting for the French presidency, according to preliminary estimates from two French polling firms. The estimates show Hollande leading conservative incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, by several percentage points. Both candidates are projected to finish with less than 30 percent of the vote.

The estimates show far-right nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen running third with about one-fifth of the vote, and far-left challenger Jean-Luc Mélenchon well behind with about half as much. The early projections are extrapolated from representative polling stations nationwide, based on samples of the first ballots counted after the end of voting.  

These results appear to presage a difficult re-election for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who will be forced to court Le Pen’s backers to assemble a majority coalition on the right to carry the second round of voting on May 6. Hollande is likely to face less resistance rallying Mélenchon’s supporters to his cause. What happens to supporters of centrist François Bayrou, who came in after Mélenchon, is more of a mystery: He has a less ideologically defined base and the candidate himself has not made clear whether he would even choose to endorse another candidate before the second round of voting.

If Sarkozy does indeed finish behind Hollande, it would mark the first time ever that an incumbent president has failed to lead the first round of voting. The last time an incumbent did not win his re-election was in 1981, when center right President Valery Giscard d’Estaing was ousted by leftist candidate François Mitterrand.

Official counts throughout the day showed voter turnout to be unexpectedly strong. Government authorities reported that 70.59 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m., less than in 2007, when Sarkozy first came to power, but higher than in any other contest in decades.

But these estimates remain out of reach to French voters—at least without a little digging on the Internet. The country’s election law forbids media from reporting any voting trends before 8 p.m., when polling stations close in big cities like Paris, Lyon, or Marseille.

For a complete coverage of the French presidential election, francophone readers should visit our sister site

Correction, April 23, 2012: A home page headline for this article originally stated that the election was Saturday. It was Sunday.