A third of French set to abstain in first presidential round

Supporters of Jean Luc Melenchon, leader of France's leftist political party Front de Gauche, and candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections wave flags during an electoral meeting. Photo / AP
Supporters of Jean Luc Melenchon, leader of France's leftist political party Front de Gauche, and candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections wave flags during an electoral meeting. Photo / AP

Three weeks ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election, a record number of voters are thinking of abstaining, testimony to widespread frustration with a lack-lustre campaign.

An Ifop poll on Sunday said 32 per cent of voters could abstain in the first round - a record, up three percentage points compared to two weeks ago.

Political analyst Vincent Tiberj, writing in the left-leaning Le Monde daily, suggested that voters were bored with the campaign that had "failed to live up its promises".

Neither President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has yet to announce his manifesto ahead of the April 22 first round of voting, nor Socialist Francois Hollande, his main rival whose early lead over Sarkozy is slipping, have excited much passion.

With neither candidate likely to win an outright majority in the first round of voting, a second round, with just two candidates, will take place on May 6.

But fewer than half of voters (43 per cent) look forward to that straight fight, according to the Ifop poll published by the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday.

Rank outsider Eva Joly, the 68-year-old Green party candidate, suffered a different kind of slip on Sunday, being admitted to hospital in Paris after falling as she left a cinema.

She was expected to be discharged early on Tuesday and would continue her campaigning activities, her campaign director Stephane Sitbon-Gomez assured. However, Joly's first engagement, an interview on RTL radio was cancelled.

Hollande, whose early commanding position has recently been weakened by the spectacular rise of Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, has increasing his attacks on Sarkozy's presidency.

On Sunday he slammed Sarkozy for failing to turn the tide of unemployment, while decrying what he sees as growing social inequalities, and an "abandoned youth".

He warned that the high level of voter frustration could translate into widespread abstentionism.

"Abstention is the danger in this presidential election, much more than the scattering" of votes among left-wing candidates, a worried Hollande said Sunday during a campaign trip to France's Indian Ocean territory of Reunion.

The Socialist candidate well remembers how the 2002 presidential vote proved a disaster for his party.

An unprecedented abstention rate of 28.4 per cent contributed to then Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin being knocked out in the first round, giving conservative president Jacques Chirac a clear run against far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Sarkozy, who so far has failed to restore hope among many of those who voted for him five years ago, has yet to announce his manifesto.

In the meantime, the president has sought to control the news cycle by multiplying new announcements.

On Saturday, he announced the creation of a "bank for youth" that would finance job entries or studies for France's disaffected young.

On the same day, the conservative candidate promised a victims' association that he would stiffen punishments for offenders, especially those responsible for sex crimes.

Surfing on nationwide shock at last week's execution-style murder of a teenager at the hand of four other adolescents, the president vowed "firmness" in dealing with delinquent minors, a favourite theme of the right-wing anti-immigration Front National.

But while Sarkozy seeks to steal votes back from the Front National, he risks alienating centrist citizens whose votes could prove vital in the second round.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, a key supporter of centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, said he wanted the campaign to return to "real subjects": "Employment, how to reduce France's yawning public debt and how to stimulate growth."

- AFP

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