Date: May 07 2012
WHEN he was 15, Francois Hollande was asked what he wanted to be in life. Straight-faced, he replied, "president of the republic".
The goal was within his grasp overnight as France went to the polls to elect the seventh president of its postwar republic.
The election will be crucial not just for the future of France over the next five years but for the balance of power in Europe and the fate of its troubled currency, with the socialist Mr Hollande demanding a rewrite of the hard-line "fiscal pact" designed to shore up the euro.
In another election that will test voter discontent with German-imposed austerity, Greece went to the polls overnight too. Politicians of both main parties begged voters to back the €130 billion ($A167 billion) bailout deal that has staved off national bankruptcy, but whose tough terms are stifling economic growth.
The choice, said Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos, was between austerity or even worse misery, "sliding back many decades and taking the country to default, to leave Greeks facing mass poverty".
In Greece, one in five is now unemployed, as are half of people aged under 25.
Germany and Italy were staging regional and local elections that would also serve as barometers of voters' anger. These polls come only days after British voters humiliated Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron - and effectively slammed his tough economic policies - in local elections where his party lost more than 400 seats.
In France, as campaigning closed on Friday, polls indicated Mr Hollande was a tight but winnable four points ahead of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
The conservative Mr Sarkozy had warned the French they were choosing between "reality and unreality" and that the nation would finish up like Greece or Spain in the hands of the inexperienced Mr Hollande, who has never held a ministry.
Mr Sarkozy has strongly supported the tough line of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in imposing budget cuts and tax rises on troubled eurozone members, to the point that the power couple have been nicknamed "Merkozy".
But Mr Hollande has promised to restore social justice, better regulate the financial world and lead Europe away from austerity. He thinks the terms of the Greek bailout are too harsh and has said he will demand the fiscal pact be rewritten to take in promises about growth, not just rules about balanced budgets.
Alarmed European leaders boycotted him during his campaign but in a last-minute gesture of compromise, the EU's Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Olli Rehn, called for measures to restore growth in Europe. This suggests there are moves afoot to try to accommodate Mr Hollande's stance.
Mr Sarkozy's chance of winning depends on whether he can snatch enough votes from the 6.4 million voters who supported far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round of the election.
Mr Sarkozy appealed to their anti-immigration views and dislike of Muslim customs in many of his speeches, and at one point said Ms Le Pen's views were "compatible with the republic". Ms Le Pen, however, has not returned the love, urging her followers not to vote for either main candidate.
Separate to the euro crisis were presidential, parliamentary and local elections in Serbia overnight.
President Boris Tadic is pro-EU and had steered Serbia towards EU candidacy. His opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, is a right-wing nationalist with anti-Western views. Neither was expected to win enough votes to govern in his own right.
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