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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Sarko-Ségo, or the 2007 French presidential runoff race

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Following a first round of voting last April 22 in which no candidate won an absolute majority, France will hold a runoff presidential election, and the top two vote-getters on the first round - Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling right-of-center Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and Ségolène Royal of the left-wing Socialist Party (PS) - will face each other off in a much anticipated Sarko-Ségo showdown.

In some ways, this year's contest resembles the 1981 presidential election, in which a center-right candidate (incumbent President Valéry d'Estaing) topped the poll in the first round, narrowly ahead of a strongly-placed Socialist nominee - François Mitterrand, whose 25.9% share of the vote was matched by Royal twenty-six years later. That year, the other major center-right candidate, then-mayor of Paris (and future president) Jacques Chirac, who had arrived in third place, gave Giscard only a lukewarm endorsement. This time around, centrist François Bayrou, who came in a strong third place with 18.6% of the vote, has refused to endorse either Sarkozy or Royal in the runoff, and subsequently indicated he would not vote for Sarkozy; he has also announced plans to create a new centrist political force, the Democratic Party, ahead of next June's legislative elections. Meanwhile, the candidates to the left of Royal have rallied behind her for the second round of voting - not unlike the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1981, which strongly backed Mitterrand in the runoff vote.

However, the similarities end there. In 1981, the Socialist and Communist presidential candidates polled a combined 40.2% of the vote, and the left won an overall majority of 50.7% in the first round, which along with Chirac's less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of Giscard, propelled Mitterrand to the presidency in the runoff. This year, Royal and the candidates to her left secured only 36.1% of the vote between themselves: this figure is even lower than the 40.6% share polled by the left in the 1995 presidential race, when Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin made a strong showing in the runoff, but was nonetheless defeated by Chirac, 52.6% to 47.4%.

In order to win the election, Royal would have to capture a sizable share of the centrist vote. Earlier opinion polls suggested a majority of Bayrou voters would back her in the runoff, but they now appear to be leaning slightly in favor of Sarkozy, who has remained ahead in every poll taken so far - although sometimes narrowly so, within the polls' margin of error.

At this juncture, Sarkozy's victory in the second round appears likely, even after Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN) announced he would not be endorsing either of the two candidates in the runoff election, and asked his followers to abstain from taking part in the poll.

So far, this turn of events appears to have had little impact on the race, and opinion polls have continued to indicate that supporters of Le Pen - who finished fourth in the first round with 10.4% of the vote (his worst showing in almost two decades, but still a respectable figure) - will overwhelmingly vote for Sarkozy in the runoff election. That said, if a sizable number of Le Pen's voters chose to follow his advice after all, France's presidential runoff vote could turn out to be tighter than expected.


The French Interior Ministry reports that at 5:00 PM CEST (15:00 GMT / 11:00 AM EDT), 75.1% of the electorate had voted in the second round of the 2007 presidential election, up from 73.9% at the same time of day in the first round of voting held last April 22.

Polls closed at 8:00 PM CEST (18:00 GMT / 2:00 PM EDT).

Voter turnout in French presidential runoff elections is usually higher than in the first round, and it appears this year will be no exception. The first round of voting of the 2007 presidential race had a final turnout rate of 83.8% - the highest since 1974.

On Thursday, May 10, 2007, the French Constitutional Council announced final results of the 2007 presidential election's second round of voting were as follows:

Nicolas Sarkozy - 18,983,138 votes (53.1%)
Ségolène Royal - 16,790,440 votes (46.9%)

Thus, Nicolas Sarkozy has been elected President of France, winning the runoff election with a substantial majority of 2,192,698 votes (6.1%).

84% of French voters took part in the event, making it the highest second round turnout in nearly two decades. The vote was also characterized by a sizable increase in the number of blank and invalid ballots, which nearly tripled with respect to the first round of voting.

The result of the election was largely in line with opinion poll forecasts, although Sarkozy's margin of victory was somewhat smaller than in some late polls, which had him ahead by as much as ten points. At least one exit poll suggests the centrist vote split evenly between Sarkozy and Royal, which may have closed the gap but was not enough to prevent Sarkozy's runoff victory.

In the end, the outcome of France's 2007 presidential runoff election is almost identical to that of the previous left-versus-right, second round showdown in 1995. Although left-wing candidates (Royal included) held a smaller overall share of the vote in this year's first round of voting than twelve years ago, Royal nearly matched Lionel Jospin's 47.4% of the vote in the 1995 runoff.

The Socialist Party is now attempting to regroup ahead of next June, when French voters return to the polls to choose members of the National Assembly - the lower house of the French legislature - in two rounds of voting: an opposition victory in that contest would force President Sarkozy to "cohabit" with a non-UMP prime minister, and largely reduce him to a figurehead. However, such an outcome would be completely unprecedented, given that in past French parliamentary elections held shortly after a presidential poll (as was the case in 1981, 1988 and 2002), voters have consistently supported the party of the president they had just chosen (the Socialists in 1981 and 1988, the UMP in 2002).