|Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party won more votes than Sarkozy in the first round of polling [GALLO/GETTY]
Paris, France - Love him or hate him, Nicolas Sarkozy is a politician who has always incited passionate responses from the people of France.
France is a much more polarised country after his five-year term in the Elysee, and, as the results from the first round of voting in the presidential election have confirmed, his detractors arguably now outnumber his admirers.
Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, won 28.6 per cent of the votes, the interior ministry confirmed on Monday morning. Sarkozy, the sitting president and candidate for the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP by its French acronym), came second, with 27.2 per cent.
Sunday's results suggest many of those who voted for the UMP candidate in 2007 have since abandoned him for the far-right National Front.
With the run-off round of voting set for May 6, whether or not he can manage the challenging task of winning those voters back will be the decisive test of his presidency.
Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, as the leader of the National Front in 2011, achieved 17.09 per cent, a record score for the far-right. This beats the elder Le Pen's score from the first round of the 2002 election, when he took 16.86 per cent of the votes.
|Spotlight coverage of France's 2012 presidential elections
When Sarkozy ran for election in 2007, support for Jean-Marie Le Pen dropped to 10.44 per cent. The UMP candidate received a healthy 31 per cent, five points more than his Socialist rival that year, Segolene Royal.
Shortly after the polls closed on Sunday, Hollande said that the surge in support for the far-right, along with the relatively high voter turnout of 80.2 per cent, was proof that much of the population viewed Sarkozy's presidency as a failure.
"The second important lesson to draw from this election, and this is undeniable, is that the first round was a punishment and a rejection of the outgoing [sic] president," he declared to a cheering crowd of around a thousand supporters outside the Socialist Party headquarters in central Paris. Speakers at the rally also called for opponents of Sarkozy from across the political spectrum to unite against him.
The Left Front's Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11.1 per cent, and the Green Party's Eva Joly, who won 2.3 per cent, have directed their supporters to vote for Hollande in the second round, almost certainly guaranteeing him some 42 per cent.
"I salute the first round candidates, Melenchon and Joly, who clearly called on their supporters to vote for me in the second round," Hollande said.
The other two high-scoring candidates, Francois Bayrou, a centrist who scored 9.1 per cent, and Le Pen, have not yet endorsed either candidate.
Sarkozy would need the support of more than half of these voters to win, assuming the other half abstained.
The morning after the election, an email from Sarkozy's campaign team outlined his key positions for the second round of the campaign:
"I will continue to represent our values and our engagements: for respect of our borders, for the fight against [international] outsourcing; for immigration control, for the security of our families; for the promotion of work, of investment, innovation and growth."
With this appeal to the many middle and working class voters, who fear their jobs, security and culture are being washed away by the supposed tide of immigrants, Sarkzoy risks isolating Bayrou's supporters, who favour moderate policies.
Until now, the National Front's Le Pen has called on her supporters to boycott the second round of voting. True to form, she has been just as critical of the UMP candidate following the vote, although she is promising to clarify her position on at a rally on May 1.
The far-right party's support base is not keen on any negotiation with the mainstream parties, and many are vocal about their deep-seated hatred of Sarkozy.
In the second round of the 2007 election, a majority of the French voted for Sarkozy, the tough-talking political outsider who brought a new energy and dynamism to the country's then-inert political class.
That election captivated the country and saw the highest voter turnout in the first round since 1974, as the older generation of political "dinosaurs" gave way to the first French president born after the Second World War.
The vote was a mandate for a new brand of politics, analysts said at the time. Sarkozy was viewed as a moderniser who would push through changes where his predecessors had failed.
"The France that wakes up early" was one of his campaign slogans, an appeal to voters who thought the government must to do more to promote and reward a strong work ethic.
Some voters told Al Jazeera they felt Sarkozy had lived up to his promises.
Andre Allouch, a voter in the 4th arrondissement (district) of Paris, said on Sunday that he believed Sarkozy's leadership during the global economic crisis had helped France fare better than many neighbouring European countries.
"I hope Sarkozy stays in power. He's proven himself," Allouch said.
Early on in his presidency, however, Nicolas Sarkozy's wealthy acquaintances and glamorous lifestyle upset many ordinary French citizens. Many members of the public - not to mention the media - never forgave him for the perceived lack of tact he demonstrated by accepting yacht rides and lavish dinners from billionaire acquaintances.
His reputation was also damaged by a series of serious corruption allegations, notably that he had accepted illegal campaign financing from the heiress Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in Europe.
"Rarely has the character of a president of the Republic made such a deep impression," Le Canard Enchaine, a satirical publication, wrote in a special magazine edition dedicated to assessing Sarkozy's five years as president.
"With Sarkozy, what is striking is not so much his ideas as his accessories," the journalist wrote, referring to Sarkozy's love of Ray-Ban sunglasses and flashy watches. "The problem is that the Rolex hardly fits with the concept of 'The France that wakes up early'."
Those who had voted for left-wing candidates were prepared to accept cutbacks, many voters told Al Jazeera on Sunday, so long as they were applied to all social classes.
"From his very first day in office, Sarkozy showed that he was not a man of the people," said Yvon Peraud, a retired businessman from Brittany's coastal town of St Brieuc.
"We are ready to make sacrifices, as long as they are applied fairly to the whole society," he said, acknowledging France's economic difficulties, as he and his wife waited outside the Socialist candidate's headquarters in Paris, shortly before the results were announced.
When Sarkozy's wife, the former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, told the French daily Le Monde in March that her and her husband were "modest people", her words were widely ridiculed. A Twitter campaign using the hashag #NousSommesDesGensModestes ["We are modest people"] recalled some of the couple's most notorious extravagances.
Frustration with Sarkozy increased following the beginning of the 2008 recession, with policies such as the bouclier fiscal ["tax shield"] cementing his reputation as a president who disproportionately favoured the very rich, even as he called on the rest of the population to make sacrifices.
While Sarkozy had won the presidency on a clearly reformist platform, the way he went about the reforms - notably the pension reforms - has left much of the population distrustful about what he might do in his second term.
"Sarkozy probably went too quickly to impose all these reforms. The French, somewhere, feel that they were 'raped' in a certain way," Christian Malad, an analyst for France Television, told Al Jazeera.
Sarkozy's political future hangs on whether the majority of far-right and centrist voters will ever trust him again.
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