French vote in large numbers to elect president


Paris : The French were going to the polls in large numbers Sunday to elect a president to follow Jacques Chirac as head of state for the next five years.

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At 5 p.m. local time (1500 GMT), three hours before the last of the voting stations were to close, 75.11 percent of France's 44.5 million registered voters had already cast their ballots, the Ministry of Interior announced.

That was the highest rate of participation for the time in any post-war French presidential election. If the French continue voting at this rate, they could break the voter participation record for a presidential election, which was 87.33 percent in 1974.

According to the polls, former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy was the heavy favourite to defeat his Socialist Party opponent, Segolene Royal, Sunday.

Polls published late Friday, just before campaigning officially ended, showed the 52-year-old Gaullist with a sizeable and growing lead over Royal.

The surveys, by Ipsos/Dell and the BVA institute, had Sarkozy beating Royal by 55 to 45 percent, substantially larger margins than previous polls had given him.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy has vowed to reduce France's bloated civil service ranks by at least half, place restrictions on strikes and impose a ceiling of 50 percent on personal revenue taxes.

He has also said his administration would put an end to the influence of France's May 1968 generation, which he said was responsible for the decline of morality and authority in France.

The 53-year-old Royal is a former environment and education minister who would become the first woman president of France if elected.

She has promised to enact a law to protect battered women, raise the minimum wage and maintain the number of civil servants, but to move them from public sectors where they are not needed, such as customs services, to areas where they are sorely lacking, such as clinics and hospitals.

Analysts will be keeping a close eye on the behaviour of the supporters of centrist Francois Bayrou, who came in third in the April 22 first round of the election with 18.57 percent of the vote.

Bayrou is set to found a new party next week, which he will call he Democratic Movement. He did not give his supporters instructions on how to vote, but said that he himself would not vote for Sarkozy.

A heavy defeat for Royal could attract a number of Socialist Party figures to his new party and could make Bayrou a figure to be reckoned with in the legislative elections, which take place on June 10 and 17.

First estimates will be announced shortly after polls close, at 8 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Police have been deployed throughout the country in numbers corresponding to a New Year's Eve or an important World Cup match, police sources said. Authorities fear that youths may riot in poor suburban ghettoes in case of a Sarkozy victory.

Sarkozy angered the minorities living in the rundown housing estates outside large cities by referring to them as "scum" and vowing to mop up the areas with a high-power industrial cleaning machine.

In Paris and three suburban regions around the capital alone, some 3,000 police officers were to be deployed on Sunday to prevent possible violence.