While record numbers of voters were piling into polling stations across France, their Israeli counterparts displayed a similar commitment to democracy as record numbers turned up in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Netanya on Sunday to choose a successor to outgoing French President Jacques Chirac. Following Sunday's elections, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal advanced to a runoff for France's presidency, presenting voters with a fundamental left-right choice between a conservative who could push his anxious nation toward painful change and a socialist who would be the country's first female leader.
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Sarkozy has the advantage heading into the May 6 runoff. Results from the Interior Ministry early Monday, based on all polling stations except those French voting in embassies overseas, had Sarkozy at No. 1 with 31.1 percent, followed by Royal with 25.8 percent.
Either way, France will get its first president born after World War II after the May 6 final round, since both Royal and Sarkozy are in their fifties. If she wins, Royal will become France's first woman president, nearly three decades after Britain elected Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Sunday's first round shut out 10 other hopefuls, from Trotskyists to far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen had hoped to repeat his shockingly strong showing of 2002 but instead finished a weak fourth, with 10.5 percent of the vote.
The turnout rate was over 80%, the polling agencies said, nearing the record of 84.8% set for a first round in 1965. The intense interest testified to the high stakes for France and the personalities - inspiring for some, divisive for others - involved in an election that was wrapped in surprises and suspense.
In Jerusalem, voters turned up in droves, and some came to vote immediately upon arriving in Jerusalem from the North, passports in hand and their luggage in tow.
"I've just come in from Tiberias so I can vote for Sarkozy," declared Paule Timsit. "Why am I voting for Sarkozy? I always vote for the Right - the good Right," she added. "I was just in France for five months, and from what I saw there, a socialist France [under Segolene Royal] would not interest me."
There are 947,000 eligible voters for the French elections living outside of France, 60,000 of them in Israel. "About 43,000 vote here in Israel, while another 15,000 go back to France to cast a ballot," Sylvain Semoun, a representative for Frenchmen Abroad and the official representative of Sarkozy's UMP Party here, told The Jerusalem Post at a Jerusalem polling station.
"[Nicholas] Sarkozy has been pushing for French citizens abroad to have the same rights and the same voice through voting," he added.
That's exactly why Avi, 24, went to Tel Aviv on Sunday. "Yes, I am French, but I live in Israel, so all that matters to me now is how France deals with Israel and anti-Semitism. Who better to do that than Sarkozy?" he asked.
In Israel, at least, that seemed to be the way the votes were going, despite the tendency most French Jews have to vote Left.
"In terms of immigration, 'Sarko' is better for France. Royal is too favorable on immigration. Sarkozy has a balanced approach and will continue to do what he did while directing the Interior Ministry. He will do a good job, and a balanced one, not like Le Pen," said Benny Ben-Ichai, a French ex-pat who has been living in Israel for the past 24 years.
Sarkozy's proposed immigration policy would require immigrants to learn French and would also encourage those who have a higher level of education to come to France.
According to custom, the only question French people cannot ask each other, aside from how much they earn, is who they vote for. But those who queued in the heat in Jerusalem were anything but coy in citing Sarkozy.
"The people are being presented with a change," said Semoun. "The old politicians - Chirac, Jospin and Le Pen - are out, and they have new young politicians in front of them. The people are very motivated and they were encouraged to vote," Semoun explained.
"It helps that [Sarkozy's] grandfather was Jewish too," said one voter named Remy. "Who knows, maybe he'll be even better then Leon Blum," he added, referring to France's president from 1936-7 and 1946-7, who was Jewish and a prisoner at Buchenwald from 1943 until 1945. "In a place like France, for [Sarkozy] not to deny his Jewish roots is a very powerful statement."