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European Press Review: A Democratic Awakening?

European editorialists on Monday hailed the high voter turnout in France's first round of presidential elections and added that the race was far from over.

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One thing's for certain: Voter apathy's not a problem in France right now

French editorialists applauded the massive turnout in Sunday's presidential first round vote, and the prospect of a clear left-right battle between right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal.

According to Jean-Marie Colombani, editor-in-chief of Le Monde newspaper, the massive turnout -- some 84 percent -- showed that the French had undergone a "democratic awakening. People wanted to wipe out the memory of April 21," he wrote, referring to the 2002 election first round, when huge abstention and a high vote for the political extremes meant that National Front leader Jean-Marie le Pen qualified for round two instead of the Socialist Lionel Jospin. "What it means is that this time there will be no sense of frustration on the eve of the second round. People will have the means to make a clear choice. They will make one, and the country will discover what direction it has chosen, and what direction it must now take," he wrote.

For Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express news magazine, "The French wanted so much to have this head-to-head between Royal and Sarkozy -- between a left in the process of renewal and a confident new right." Barbier added that Sarkozy should have the advantage ahead of the second round run-off on May 6, counting on carry-over votes from far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou. "But nothing is decided," he added. "Segolene Royal has one important weapon: the 'Anyone but Sarko' option. We can expect a second round which brings out all his character faults and ideological excesses. In short -- it's back to where we were at the start of the campaign."

British newspapers on Monday also noted that the high turnout in the first-round of French elections was a sign of the polls' importance, and warned that a fierce clash was forthcoming.

The Daily Telegraph, a right-wing paper, wrote France is "as its people recognize, in trouble -- and this election is, as the high turnout yesterday indicates, its best chance to turn things around." In an editorial titled "France needs Sarkozy" it continued to say that between the two candidates left, "it is Mr Sarkozy who is likeliest to embrace the painful structural changes that France so desperately needs. But before that, he needs to win an election -- far from a sure thing, especially in this most fascinating of contests."

In Germany, business daily Financial Times Deutschland warned that the two weeks until the final round would be marked by "extreme polarization" as the campaign grows "tougher, more ruthless and more personal." But it said Royal and Sarkozy did not represent two radically different ends of the political spectrum. "To the contrary: the last weeks have shown that each candidate constantly took on board the populist demands of the other to try to best his or her opponent. In the end, there may be a close outcome and a France deeply divided into two camps."

The conservative broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also noted the remarkably high turnout at the polls. "Apparently the French were fascinated by a campaign that was

fixated on personalities." It said that Royal had done better than expected while Sarkozy could be satisfied with meeting his goal of seizing 30 percent of the vote in the first round. "With a campaign that started with a liberal tone, then took on more and more Gaullist accents and at the end leaned sharply to the right, he exhausted his own voter potential while luring Le Pen voters."

Spanish daily El Pais meanwhile said that Royal's "only chance to defeat Sarkozy will be to seek Bayrou's support, but this will not be easy. Sarkozy is still the best armed candidate to enter the Elysee which does not mean that his victory is guaranteed because of the powerful rejection and hatred he provokes among some French voters," the paper said.

For Italy's La Stampa, "The absolute novelty is the presence of a woman who had been expected to be defeated in the first round...The French will now be able to choose not only between two very different political options but also between a man and woman," the newspaper said.

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