Brussels to breathe sigh of relief after French vote
By Honor Mahony
The first round of France's presidential elections on Sunday (22 April) will bring Brussels a step closer to resumption of normal business, with the EU capital on something of a political lock-down as the campaigning has gathered pace.
Nicolas Sarkozy and his main challenger Francois Hollande are, according to polls, set to make it through to the run-off on 6 May.
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Hoping to avoid bcoming the first one-term president since 1981, centre-right Sarkozy (with 27.5% according to a BVA poll) is talking up his economic credentials as the country struggles with a 12-year unemployment high and huge public debt.
Tough anti-immigrant language, the changing of key EU policies and blowing hot and cold on Berlin have also featured in his campaign.
But he has been unable to dislodge Socialist contender Hollande (29.5%) from the lead.
Emerging from the shadows after it became clear that disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss Kahn would not lead the centre-left party, the low-key Hollande has positioned himself as the anti-austerity candidate, pledging a 75 percent tax on the super-rich. He also makes much of being the anti-Sarkozy in terms of his less showy style.
Both leading candidates are feeling threatened by ones further right and left.
Marine Le Pen (14%), heading up the far-right National Front, is peddling protectionism, xenophobia and Brussels-bashing. She believes she will make it through to the second round of elections, as her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002.
The genuine surprise of the campaign has been the rise of Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left. Polling at 13 percent, he is set to poach leftist voters unconvinced by the centrist Hollande, and has called for a 20 percent rise in the minimum wage and a full pension for people older than 60.
The rest of the field consists of centrist Francois Bayrou (12%), Green Eva Joly (2%), rightist Nicolas Dupont (1%) and three far-left candidates - Philippe Poutou (1%), Nathalie Arthuad (0%) and Jacques Cheminade (0%).
The view from outside
For onlookers in Brussels and other national capitals, the challenge has been to sort the wheat from the chaff in campaign rhetoric on European issues.
EU officials have had a typical case of selective hearing since electioneering began in earnest.
This especially concerns Sarkozy's comments on making Europe more protectionist by establishing a 'Buy European Act,' pulling France out of the EU's borderless area unless there is progress on strengthening borders and altering the role of the European Central Bank to focus on growth.
"It's France. Let's wait and see what really happens after 6 May," one EU official said, referring to the second round. "None of these things are issues where France can simply act alone," the contact added.
Hollande's biggest European issue is a pledge to alter the fiscal compact treaty. His talk on this has ranged from full-blown renegotiation to simply adding text on growth measures.
He recently told Germany's Handelsblatt that: "If the pact contains no measures for growth, I can't recommend it for ratification."
But there are doubts that he will do much because the treaty has already been signed by 25 countries and some have ratified it. "There is to be a separate French declaration appended to the treaty. [Hollande] intends to put into it that toughness on spending should be accompanied by pro-growth measures," said one senior EU source.
Many in the EU capital are keen to see the back of the French elections because they cause disruption.
EU pause to end
According to diplomats, once the next president of the fifth Republic is installed, talks on issues such as the EU's multi-annual budget and tweaking the rules on EU borders will begin in earnest.
Early indications of the result are to come after the last polls close at 8pm local time.
Analysts say French voters often use the first round to make a point but the second one to vote in earnest. Hollande has led, just, in most first round polls and in all second round polls over Sarkozy.
While the campaign winds down Friday (20 April) ahead of polling day, a different political storm is brewing.
French authorities are threatening to pursue media outlets that publish exit poll results - available from around 6.30pm - before last poll stations close in big cities such as Paris and Marseilles.
In 2007, French voters flocked to Belgian and Swiss websites to see leaked exit polls. But with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, French commentators are questioning whether the media blackout in France can or should be maintained.
Those breaking the ban, including social media users, could face a fine of €75,000, the French authorities warned on Thursday.