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For supporters, the economy was key

PARIS -- The voters who elected Nicolas Sarkozy president of France yesterday went to the polls with a message: It's the economy, mon cher .

Rich and poor, young and old, his backers said they had chosen Sarkozy because France needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps -- and they believe that he can get the job done.

His supporters, who thronged to the polls in record numbers on a sunny May day, cited other factors as well: fears that France is being overrun by immigrants who they believe are changing fundamental aspects of "Frenchness" and who might take away their jobs; rising crime and disorder; anger over the idea of allowing Turkey into the European Union; and irritation over perceived abuse of France's generous welfare system.

Some backers of the tough-talking former minister of Finance and Interior said they had chosen Sarkozy mainly because they did not trust his Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal.

But over and over, in conversations before the vote and in interviews on election day, Sarkozy's supporters began by citing the "e" word. They relished his thrusts at France's 35-hour workweek, almost gleefully quoting his main campaign proposal -- to let people "work more in order to earn more" by loosening constraints on the workday.

Ombline Van de Weyer, 27, said she voted for Sarkozy because "he wants to make France get going."

"France is stagnating -- there is no growth," said Van de Weyer, who holds a master's degree in fiscal law but had a hard time finding her current job as tax analyst at a time when a surprising number of well-educated French young people are going abroad to get work. "I agree with Sarkozy's program, notably about the 35-hour workweek."

Geoffroy Berlioz, a 28-year-old computer engineer who went to the polls in Paris, said: "I voted for Sarkozy first of all for his economic policy. He wants to reduce the debt. It's also a vote by default because Ségolène Royal wanted to finance her program through growth. I don't agree with this. I think spending more in order to save money is not the right solution."

Nicolas Arnault, 25, a management consultant who voted in Paris, said Sarkozy has experience and can restore order and growth to the economy.

"I'm for liberalizing the labor market and getting rid of the 35-hour workweek, which is hurting economic growth and limiting our economic choices and opportunities," he said.

Sarkozy "wants to let people work if they want to," said Fabien Vavasseur, 35, who works in a bookstore in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the wealthy Paris suburb where Sarkozy formerly served as mayor.

"If people want to work 40 hours a week, they should be able to. What gives me confidence in him is that he's someone who always says what he thinks, even if it's not very popular."

Polls taken before the vote indicated that support for Sarkozy was particularly strong among retired people. In the southern city of Montpellier, where Sarkozy held his last major campaign rally, Bernadette Marcel, 60, said she voted for him "because of his will to really change things."

"He is dynamic and he is competent," Marcel said. "And he tells it as it is."

Gil-Stephane Roth, a taxi driver in La Grande Motte, a small harbor town outside Montpellier, said: "If you run a small business, you can barely survive in France. I hope he will keep his promises and inject a bit of oxygen into the economy. There is too much red tape."

In areas with large foreign populations, like Aubervilliers, a suburb northeast of Paris where rioting erupted 18 months ago, the economy took a back seat to immigration for some voters.

"The changes I've seen in Aubervilliers are very, very bad," said Christine Poncet, 46, who runs a bakery there.

"The situation really has gone downhill. There are more and more foreigners, and we just don't feel at home here any more. I'm not racist, but people living here should respect the country's laws or they should leave. The biggest problem we have here in France is being swamped by illegal immigrants. Some people are so used to getting without giving and to taking without working. I think Nicolas Sarkozy understands this and knows what he's talking about."

Sarkozy may be seen as a hard-liner on immigration, but that did not stop some immigrants from voting for him.

M'backé Sow, 42, who came to France from Senegal as a young man and is now a citizen, likes Sarkozy so much that he went to work for his party, the Union for a Popular Movement.

"The left had the merit of reaching out to us in the past, to the black and Arab communities, the communities of diversity," Sow said. "For a long time, the right seemed like a bunker."

But when Sarkozy took over as party leader, Sow said, "he opened the doors."

"He said that there was room for everybody, that it's good if we're different because it's enriching," Sow added.