News / Europe

French Voters Concerned About Economy Ahead of Election

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Lisa Bryant

Campaigning is underway in France's April presidential election. Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy faces an uphill battle for re-election. Many French dislike his leadership style. But the biggest voter concern is France's sluggish economy, and how to turn it around.

At the northern Paris branch of Secours Populaire, people are loading up on basics that will get them through the week. The French charity offers food, clothing and emergency shelter to the needy. Volunteer staff check them in. For a token contribution of 50 centimes, about 66 U.S. cents, they can fill up their shopping carts.

Local head Alain Chetaille says the charity's caseload has jumped 50 percent over the past year. He knows why, hard times in France.

Chetaille says people are worried about jobs, money and housing and their long-term future.

People of every age come here. Some live alone, but many have families who depend on them.

Chetaille says nearly four in 10 people seeking assistance here are single mothers.

Thirty-two-year-old Nadia Coulibaly is one of them. She and her six-month-old daughter spend their nights in emergency shelters. She is a qualified travel agent, but she cannot find a job.

Coulibaly says finding a job is extremely difficult. France's economic crisis can be felt in all parts of the economy.

Bread-and-butter issues like housing and jobs are likely to dominate France's presidential elections. Nearly 10 percent of French are unemployed, and the economy is barely growing.  

Political science professor Steven Ekovich, of the American University of Paris, says voters are afraid. "It's no surprise that the economy is going to have some influence on this election. When people feel they're in a fragile situation, they will be more tempted to go for somebody who offers a bold solution, or at least a reassuring solution," he said.

Not surprisingly, political opponents blame the economic problems on conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.  But as he campaigns for re-election, under the theme of "a strong France", Mr. Sarkozy is fighting back, claiming his policies have saved the country from ruin. He promises more reforms to create jobs, boost growth and make France more competitive.

"The political debate is not about the economy per se, it's about the budget - how to deal with the economy. How much the state should be spending to jumpstart the economy," said Ekovich.

Mr. Sarkozy is also cracking down on immigration, a popular theme shared by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who is running third in the race.

The narrow front runner is Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande, although President Sarkozy is closing the gap.  Hollande wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and invest in education, research and employment as a way to grow the economy.

"He's presented himself as the realist Socialist. He's lost some votes on the left for that," said Ekovich.

But Hollande has won over 61-year-old artist Theo Cas. "I'm voting for Francois Hollande. My convictions are on the left, like Social democrats, the importance of the state has to be reassured," he said.

But at Secours Populaire, Coulibaly is throwing her support behind Mr. Sarkozy.

She says things are not going too badly. The other candidates talk, but they have not proved themselves.

The first round of voting is still two months away. Analysts say plenty could change in the race. One thing is certain: France's economic problems, and how to fix them, will dominate the debate.

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