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French Presidential Campaign Enters Final Phase

French Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 presidential elections Francois Hollande delivers his speech during a campaign meeting in Lille, northern France, April 17, 2012.
French Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 presidential elections Francois Hollande delivers his speech during a campaign meeting in Lille, northern France, April 17, 2012.

French voters will cast their ballots on Sunday (4/22/12) in the first round of a presidential election that should ultimately see France's first Socialist leader in nearly two decades.  The campaign enters it's final phase as Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and his main rival Socialist Francois Hollande hold rallies.

Hollande, "a normal man"

It is a cold and windy day, but this campaign rally in front of the 14th century Chateau de Vincennes has a festive atmosphere.  People line up to grab barbecued merguez, a spicy North African sausage, and to listen to musicians perform.  But mostly they are awaiting the main act - when Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande delivers one of his final campaign speeches before Sunday's vote.

Hollande's supporters include 60-year-old Patrice Marshall from the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

Marshall says he has supported Hollande for a long time, well before he was a presidential candidate.  Marshall says he likes Hollande because of his human qualities and because he defends the socialist values like solidarity.  And especially, Marshall says, because Hollande might be the man to drive French President Nicolas Sarkozy from office.

Hollande is a veteran of the French political scene.  He headed the Socialist Party for years.  But he has never held a top government post and generally is not considered to be particularly charismatic.  Hollande is aware of this.  He describes himself as a "normal man."  And public opinion surveys show him in a dead heat with Nicolas Sarkozy in a first round of voting and winning in a second.

So what explains Hollande's popularity?

"The point of Mr. Hollande first, is that he's not Sarkozy.  And the election has been dominated by some key phenomenon, which is obviously the economic crisis, but also what we call in France "anti-Sarkozism."  The personality of Mr. Sarkozy disturbs many voters," says Bruno Cautres, a political scientist at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris

Taking stock on Sarkozy

Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, bringing hope for change.  But many French were turned off by what they considered to be his flashy personality and an inconsistent policies.  Then, Cautres says, came the global economic downturn and the eurozone crisis.

"Obviously, to be in power during such a desperate economic situation is not a good place to be.  And I think that whoever there is [next] is probably in a very difficult situation," he said.  

But Hollande supporter Fatna Chouaikh calls President Sarkozy's policies disastrous.

Chouaikh says that under Sarkozy, misery and economic disparities have grown and fundamental rights have been compromised.  As an ethnic Moroccan and a Muslim, Chouaikh says she opposes Sarkozy's immigration policies.

Sarkozy, "Man of the situation"

But Sarkozy is not giving up.  And neither are his supporters, who recently packed Paris's Place de la Concorde.

Some, like 27-year-old Julien Guiguet, a real estate agent in Lyon, traveled hundreds of kilometers to attend the rally.  He says he has been a Sarkozy supporter for years.

"Because he was the man of the situation.  There is [a] crisis in Europe, and he gives some solution to France," said Guiguet.

Fifty-year-old Anne Versellone has a similar view.

"I vote for Mr. Sarkozy because he's a great president and I believe in France because it's a great country.  And Mr. Sarkozy is a leader in Europe and is the best for Europe and France," she said.

Sarkozy and Hollande are not the only candidates on Sunday's ballot.  Ten hopefuls are vying to be the country's next president, with Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left, who pollsters say are likely to place third and fourth.

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