PARIS (Reuters) - Conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy secured a commanding lead in the opening round of France’s presidential election on Sunday and will meet Socialist rival Segolene Royal in a run-off on May 6.
The former interior minister, who promises to reward hard work and wage war on crime, looked well placed to win the decisive vote after chalking up the highest first-round score for a rightist presidential hopeful since 1969.
With almost all the ballots counted, Sarkozy was credited with 30.7 percent of the vote while Royal was on 25.17 percent.
Sunday’s turnout was a huge 84.5 percent, attesting to the enormous interest the election has generated, with France’s volatile voters reversing a previous trend and shunning the political extremes in favor of mainstream parties.
Centrist Francois Bayrou came third with 18.4 percent and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France by coming second in the 2002 election, finished fourth on 11 percent — his lowest score in his last three attempts at the presidency.
As expected, none of the 12 presidential candidates won an absolute majority, opening the way for the run-off.
Four polls carried out late Sunday put Sarkozy at between 52-54 percent in the second round showdown, and Royal, seeking to become France’s first woman president, on 46-48 percent.
Sarkozy’s biggest problem as he heads into the second round is his reputation as an authoritarian bully, with rivals turning the first round into a referendum on his personality and accusing him of courting the hard-right vote.
In a speech to cheering supporters after polling stations closed, a relaxed, happy-looking Sarkozy immediately tried to soften his image and reached out to the political centre.
“The France I dream of is a France which leaves no-one behind, a France which is like a family, where the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most fragile have the right to as much love, as much respect and as much attention as the strongest,” he said.
Jubilant Socialist fans at their party headquarters waved red roses at news Royal had made it through to the run-off, relieved there was no repeat of the nightmare of 2002, when Le Pen knocked their candidate out of the race.
“There are many of us today ... who don’t want a France dominated by the law of the strongest and most brutal and blocked in by the power of money where power in concentrated in the hands of always the same few people,” Royal told supporters.
Leading the field in the first round does not guarantee ultimate success. Twice in the last five elections, in 1974 and 1995, the first-round winner lost the run-off.
But Royal, who has been dogged by questions about her competence, faces a daunting challenge.
The combined score for leftist candidates on Sunday was little more than 35 percent, amid signs that France has shifted distinctly to the right, and she will have to hope Bayrou’s voters turn her way en masse.
In the past, Bayrou’s party has always allied itself to the conservatives and Royal will have to tone down her leftist economic rhetoric if she wants to draw centrists towards her.
The election marks a generational shift for France, with conservative President Jacques Chirac, 74, retiring after 12 years in power, and both Sarkozy and Royal in their early 50s.
Whoever replaces Chirac will inherit a fractured, fragile country that has the highest unemployment rate of any major industrial power, poor, multi-ethnic suburbs simmering with discontent and a dominant state sector resistant to reform.
Sarkozy wants the French to work harder and pay less tax, and is promising swift reforms to curb union powers, slim government and toughen sentencing for repeat offenders.
He also wants to create a ministry of immigration and identity — something critics say is a measure aimed at wooing far-right voters attracted by Le Pen’s anti-foreigner rhetoric.
Royal, a regional leader who has held only junior government posts, presents herself as a healing force for a divided nation.
She has promised to raise the minimum wage, create 500,000 jobs for young workers and wants to reward companies that innovate and invest in France. She has also suggested setting up boot camps for young offenders.
Sunday was a bleak day for smaller parties, with only four of the 12 candidates winning more than five percent of the vote.
Reporting by the Paris bureau