By Steven Erlanger

Supporters of Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, cheered the early election returns in Paris.

The Socialist candidate, François Hollande, won a narrow victory in Sunday’s first round of France’s presidential elections, riding promises of economic growth and a general dislike for the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, into a favorable position before a runoff with Mr. Sarkozy on May 6.

The strong showing by the left and anger on the political extremes seemed to reflect a desire for change in France after 17 years of centrist, conservative presidents. And it could continue an anti-incumbency trend that began with the economic crisis in Western Europe, where center-right governments dominate from Britain to Spain to Germany.

It may also represent the first stirrings of a challenge to the German-dominated narrative of the euro crisis, which holds that public debt and runaway spending are the main culprits and that austerity must precede growth. Over the weekend, the Dutch government was left tottering after failing to gain a majority in support of austerity measures, and demonstrators in the Czech Republic turned out in the greatest numbers since 1989 to protest a tax increase and budget cuts.

The French vote “is a reaction against austerity, and austerity is you,” Mr. Hollande’s campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, said to the leader of Mr. Sarkozy’s party, Jean-François Copé.

Source: The Economist

But the vote was also about an electorate that has grown increasingly disenchanted with politics and the political class. Marie-Claude Noël, 72, of Amiens in northern France, said she had voted for Mr. Sarkozy but by default, “because politics is a nest of vipers.”

“The situation is so catastrophic that whoever wins it won’t make much difference,” she said. “The French want change but only on the condition that it doesn’t change anything for them.”

Mr. Hollande finished with 28.5 percent of the ballots cast and Mr. Sarkozy with 27.1 percent, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry after the last polls closed. They were followed by Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front with 18.2 percent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front party with 11.1 percent, the centrist François Bayrou with 9.1 percent and five other candidates with minimal support.

While Mr. Sarkozy’s total was only a percentage point or two short of Mr. Hollande’s, the view of most experts has been that unless Mr. Sarkozy took the first round, he would have a hard time winning the runoff. The strong showing by Ms. Le Pen gave some heart Sunday night to Mr. Sarkozy’s supporters, since the two share similar themes about immigration, radical Islam, and law and order. But a number of Le Pen voters have said they will abstain or vote against Mr. Sarkozy in the second round. “This is an election that will weigh on the future of Europe,” Mr. Hollande, 57, said after voting. “That’s why many people are watching us. They’re wondering not so much what the winner’s name will be, but especially what policies will follow.” Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on April 22, 2012 (a version of this article appeared in print on April 23, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Sarkozy and Socialist Head to Runoff in France).


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