Across France, voters went to the polls on Sunday, giving Socialist leader Francois Hollande a slim victory over President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of presidential voting, which saw some 10 candidates vying against each other. The smart money is on Hollande to emerge victorious in a one-on-one runoff with Sarkozy on May 6, but the center-right Sarkozy is hoping to bolster his support with first-round voters who gave far-right leader Marine Le Pen a solid third-place finish. With the European Union teetering on the brink of financial ruin, plenty of global issues are at stake in the election — including the fate of the U.S. economy. Here, a guide to France's historic election:
Why have French voters turned against Sarkozy?
France, like much of Europe, is in the midst of an economic slowdown, and Sarkozy is getting the blame. Plus, his personality just seems to rub the French the wrong way. "Short and pugnacious, intense and vulgar, Sarkozy is not the kind of man with whom many French want to raise a glass of wine," says Christopher Dickey at The Daily Beast. Remember, Sarkozy got off on the wrong foot with the electorate, beginning his presidency with a high-profile affair with the singer-cum-model Carla Bruni and attending lavish parties. He was derided as the "bling bling" president, and has since apologized for his early behavior.
And now Sarkozy is expected to lose in the runoff?
Sarkozy won 27 percent of first-round votes, while Hollande won nearly 29 percent. Some analysts say Sarkozy can expect to naturally gain followers of Le Pen, who appealed to 18 percent of voters with her strident anti-immigrant platform. However, Le Pen "scoops up a lot of anti-Sarkozy and anti-establishment voters who are fed up with the cosy dealings of the Paris elite," says S.P. at The Economist. They won't automatically support Sarkozy just because he's to Hollande's right on immigration.
What has Hollande promised to do as president?
He has pledged to increase government spending to spur economic growth. That position is the polar opposite of the policy Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have adopted, encouraging EU countries to cut spending to get their finances in line. The duo, who have worked together so closely that they're referred to jointly as "Merkozy," have shaped the EU's response to the debt crisis, which shows no signs of abating.
Would Hollande's proposals hurt or help Europe?
It depends whom you ask. Some economists say it "is likely to make matters worse, possibly sending financial markets into a tailspin that invites further chaos," says Steven Erlanger at The New York Times. Others say boosting economic growth is the key to getting Europe out of its funk. "An Hollande victory would shake things up, and offer at least a possibility of something better," says Paul Krugman at The New York Times. Plus, some European countries may be starting to turn against Merkozy's prescriptions: The Dutch government will likely collapse over resistance to new austerity measures, and Spain and Italy are also siding with more pro-growth policies.
Who does the Obama administration support?
While the White House hasn't endorsed a particular candidate, it clearly wants the EU to adopt a policy more similar to Hollande's. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this week subtly encouraged European policymakers to do just that, when he exhorted them to tackle the crisis more "creatively, flexibly, and aggressively." An economic disaster in Europe could drag down the global economy and throw up a huge stumbling block to the U.S.'s tepid recovery — which means the Obama administration is watching the French election closely.
How else would Hollande differ from Sarkozy?
Hollande has pledged to pull all of France's troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012, barring a "logistic impossibility." That's a year ahead of the pace set by Sarkozy, who wants to withdraw by the end of 2013.
Sources: Bloomberg, The Daily Beast, The Economist (2), The New York Times (2), The Washington Post, Xinhua