Category: Politics

Francois Hollande (left) and Nicolas Sarkozy

Francois Hollande (left) is mounting a strong challenge against President Sarkozy

France is set to vote in a presidential election amid widespread disaffection caused by the eurozone crisis and high unemployment.

Centre-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking re-election, saying only he can preserve a “strong France”.

But he is facing a tough challenge from Socialist Francois Hollande, who has said it is “the left’s turn to govern”.

There are 10 candidates in all, and if none wins more than 50% of the votes there will be a run-off round on 6 May.

Polls in mainland France and Corsica will be open from 08:00 to 18:00 (06:00-16:00 GMT), with voting stations in big cities remaining open for another two hours.

The first official results will be released after the last stations close at 20:00 (18:00 GMT).

President Sarkozy, who has been in office since 2007, has promised to reduce France’s large budget deficit and to tax people who leave the country for tax reasons.

He has also called for a “Buy European Act” for public contracts, and threatened to pull out of the Schengen passport-free zone unless other members do more to curb immigration from non-European countries.

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“Start Quote

The political rivals are keen to demonstrate that history is on their side”

image of Chris MorrisChris MorrisBBC News, Paris

Mr Hollande, for his part, has promised to raise taxes on big corporations and people earning more than 1m euros a year.

He wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.

If elected, Mr Hollande would be France’s first left-wing president since Francois Mitterrand, who completed two seven-year terms between 1981 and 1995.

French presidents are now elected for five years.


Wages, pensions, taxation, and unemployment have been topping the list of voters’ concerns.

But the candidates have been accused of failing to address the country’s problems during a lacklustre campaign.

Frustration with Mr Sarkozy’s flashy style and with Mr Hollande’s bland image has also allowed radical candidates to flourish.

Marine Le Pen, a media savvy far-right leader, has invigorated her anti-immigration National Front.

Meanwhile Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is supported by the Communist Party, has galvanised far-left voters.

Centrist leader Francois Bayrou is standing as a presidential candidate for the third time. In 2007, he came third, with nearly 19% of the vote.

Voting was held on Saturday in France’s overseas territories – including Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and French Polynesia.

Those territories vote early because results will be known on Sunday evening in mainland France – when it is still mid-afternoon in Caribbean islands and other overseas territories.

The presidential vote will be followed by a parliamentary election in June.

Are you in France? How are you feeling about the presidential election? Please send us your comments and experiences.



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In a move more reminiscent of something her husband Bill might do, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was photographed last night dancing and knocking back a beer at a club in Cartagena, Colombia.

Clinton, in town for Summit of the Americas, showed up at a bar called La Havana at around 12:45 AM and stayed for about 30 minutes.

According to a local paper, Clinton and her party of 12 ordered a dozen beers, two glasses of whiskey and bottles of water.

Nice to see Hillary let loose a little.

Nicolas Sarkozy: “I would like to build a strong France”

Nicolas Sarkozy has unveiled his economic manifesto for re-election as president of France, less than three weeks before the first round of voting.

He promised spending cuts and a new law committing France to balanced budgets.

Opinion polls suggest he has edged ahead of his main rival, Francois Hollande, but the Socialist still seems likely to win the second round.

Mr Sarkozy has seen his support strengthen since an Islamist gunman attacked soldiers and a Jewish school.

But now attention is moving to the economy and Mr Sarkozy promised greater stability.

‘Golden rule’

“I want to say that in 2016 that France must have a balanced budget. I emphasise, a balanced budget is the golden rule for our citizens. I will vote it in from summer 2012. This golden rule is to be adopted by all our European partners – whether they are of the left or of the right,” he said.

The French president said he expects the country’s public debt to peak at 89.4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2013 before falling back to 80.2% in 2017.

That compares to debt levels of 159% of GDP in Greece and 81.8% of GDP in Germany in the final quarter of last year, according to statistics from the European Commission.

Mr Sarkozy also promised to freeze France’s contributions to the European Union budget, saving 600m euros ($790m; £497m) annually.

And he added: “I won’t go back on on the proposals I made on the fiscalisation of dividends, minimum taxes for big businesses and taxing tax exiles, withdrawing working tax credit (a state subsidy for the low paid) which will bring in 8bn euros ($10bn; £6.5bn) to the state’s budget.”

His Socialist rival Mr Hollande supports higher taxes on the rich. On Wednesday he promised a freeze on fuel prices and a 30% cut in salaries for the president and cabinet ministers.

‘Unemployment first’

Francois Hollande with his partner  Valerie Trierweiler in Paris, 5 AprilMr Hollande is still tipped to win

After the gun attacks in the south-west last month, Mr Sarkozy ordered a security clampdown and there have been high-profile and controversial raids on suspected Islamist militants.

This week, France expelled two foreign-born radical Islamists on state security grounds.

However, opinion polls suggest unemployment – running at 10% – tops voter concerns.

According to the three most recent opinion polls available, Mr Sarkozy leads Mr Hollande by an average of 1.8 percentage points in the first round but trails him in the second by an average of seven points.

Voters first go to the polls on 22 April, with the run-off scheduled for 6 May.



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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and US President Barack Obama meet for a North America summit in Guadalajara, Mexico 10 August 2009.

The three leaders are to discuss energy issues amid a backdrop of high gas prices and unemployment

US President Barack Obama is hosting three-way talks at the White House with the leaders of Canada and Mexico.

Talks usually centre on border issues and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

This year the summit could also touch on a disputed US-Canada oil pipeline.

President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon are meeting weeks before a broader regional summit to be held in Colombia.

The Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, is to be held in two weeks’ time.

No major agreements are expected to be signed at Monday’s summit, which will see the three leaders hold a joint news conference.

The meeting was originally planned to take place in Hawaii in November, but had to be rescheduled after a top Mexican official was killed in a helicopter crash.

Thorny issues

The three leaders are expected to address ways in which to boost the economic recovery, as well as energy – with Mexico a major oil exporter and Canada unhappy over the fate of the stalled Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline would transport crude oil from the tar sands of western Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The White House refused to approve the project, amid concerns that the route passed through the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region of the US state of Nebraska.

Mr Harper has previously said he was disappointed by the White House decision, and indicated that Canada would consider selling oil to China, as an alternative.

Mr Obama has said exports would be a key component of the US recovery. Canada represents the biggest market for US exports, followed by Mexico. The US, though, is the biggest consumer of both Canadian and Mexican goods.

But trade between the US and Mexico has been overshadowed by violence from drug cartels struggling to control smuggling routes into the US market, and Mexico’s complaints of weapons bought in the US moving south.

The leaders also face differing political climates at home. Mexico is holding elections on 1 July, and Mr Calderon is not eligible for re-election; meanwhile, Mr Obama faces re-election in November.

Mr Harper, who has been in office since 2006, won a new term in office in May 2011.

Marco Rubio

Mr Rubio only won election to the US Senate in the 2010 mid-term elections

Florida senator and conservative favourite Marco Rubio has endorsed Mitt Romney in the race for the US Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Rubio, speaking on Fox News, said Mr Romney would be an impressive president and an improvement over the “disastrous” Barack Obama.

He would not be drawn on frequent speculation that he could be named as Mr Romney’s vice-presidential pick.

On Thursday former President George H W Bush will also endorse Mr Romney.

Marco Rubio is popular among very conservative and Tea Party voters who have remained sceptical of Mr Romney throughout his candidacy.

In addition, his Hispanic roots are thought by analysts to offer a key opportunity to win the support of crucial Latino voters.

Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity, Mr Rubio said: “I am going to endorse Mitt Romney.

“Not only is he going to be the Republican nominee, he offers a stark contrast to this president’s record.”

He brushed off concerns that Mr Romney had struggled to dominate the lengthy primary process, and said he had no doubt the former governor of moderate Massachusetts would campaign and govern as an authentic conservative.

“This primary has been excellent because it has meant people take position on issues that we can hold them accountable to,” he added.

‘Humble origins’

Mr Rubio’s endorsement is the latest high-profile Republican figure to fall in line behind Mr Romney, who is widely seen as the inevitable eventual nominee.

In a statement, Mr Romney said his latest backer was a living example of the American Dream.

“From humble origins, he has risen to become one of the brightest lights in our political party.

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Delegate totals

  • Mitt Romney
  • Rick Santorum
  • Newt Gingrich
  • Ron Paul
  • 568
  • 273
  • 135
  • 50

See detail of all states won

A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to win

“He has been a leading voice in the US Senate and the country for the cause of restoring American greatness.”

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum remains in second place in the primary race, but is far behind Mr Romney with roughly half of the number delegates won.

Mr Santorum appeals to conservatives, in part because of his message of social conservatism, and has won a string of states in highly conservative and religious areas of the US.

But Mr Romney has now picked up the endorsement of two key party power-brokers in 24 hours – the elder statesman George H W Bush and Mr Rubio.

Mr Bush and Mr Romney will appear together on Thursday in Houston, Texas, Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.

Another heavy-hitting conservative figure from Florida, former Governor Jeb Bush, gave Mr Romney his support a week ago.

Meanwhile, Mr Romney’s other mainstream rival Newt Gingrich is reported to be struggling to keep his campaign.

He has dramatically reduced his staff and cut his campaign events, reportedly to focus on winning the nomination at the Republican convention in Tampa in August.


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  • Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

    • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband …

    LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) – Little Rock, Arkansas renamed its airport to honor two of its most famous citizens — former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the airport commission said on Tuesday.

    The seven-member Little Rock Municipal Airport Commissionvoted unanimously to honor the Clintons, citing their numerous accomplishments.

    Bill Clinton, a native of Arkansas, served as governor before winning the presidency in 1992 and serving two terms. Hillary Rodham Clinton was raised in Illinois but moved to Arkansas after marrying Bill. She was elected a senator from New York State after her husband’s second term finished and was appointed Secretary of State after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.

    “The Clintons continue to have a major impact on our state and our local economy, and we believe renaming our airport in their honor is a fitting way to recognize their service and their position in Arkansas and our nation’s history,” said Commission Chairman Jim Dailey in a news release.

    The Little Rock National Airport is the state’s largest commercial service airport. It serves 2.2 million passengers annually. The commission is currently working on a plan to make the airport international by 2020.

    When Hillary Clinton worked at the city’s Rose Law Firm, she served as legal counsel for the airport and the commission.

    Bill Clinton said in a statement, “Hillary and I are humbled by the Little Rock Airport Commission’s decision … We are grateful for this honor and for all that the people of Arkansas have done for us. And we look forward to many happy landings at the airport in the years ahead.”

    The Federal Aviation Administration will have to approve the commission’s decision. The airport’s three-letter identifying code “LIT” will not change.

    The commission said that it will redesign the signs entering the airport.

    Little Rock is also home to the $165 million dollar William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which includes a library and park and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

    (Editing by Greg McCcune)

Mitt Romney in Collinsville, Illinois, on 17 March 2012

Mitt Romney is campaigning hard in Illinois ahead of Tuesday’s primary

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is campaigning hard in the crucial primary state of Illinois after his easy weekend win in Puerto Rico.

The former Massachusetts governor secured 83% of the vote in Puerto Rico with 83% of the ballot counted.

His nearest rival for the candidacy, social conservative Rick Santorum, won barely 8%.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s campaign has raised $45m (£28.4m) for his re-election bid in February.

Mr Romney’s campaign is pulling out all the stops in the mid-western state of Illinois after he lost the Mississippi and Alabama primaries to Mr Santorum last week.

A candidate needs to accumulate 1,144 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August in order to secure the nomination.

With Puerto Rico’s result, Mr Romney has 521 delegates. Mr Santorum has 253 delegates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has 136 and Ron Paul had 50, according to an Associated Press tally.

Magic number

A new poll suggests Mr Romney has a convincing lead in Illinois, leading Mr Santorum by 15 points among likely Republican voters in the state.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, on 18 March 2012Republican candidate Rick Santorum is vowing to compete in every state

Mr Romney’s well-financed campaign and its allies have already spent $2.5m in adverts in the state.

He is using the Puerto Rico win to call on the other Republican candidates to quit the nomination race.

Ann Romney told supporters in Illinois on Sunday that Republican voters “need to send a message that it’s time to coalesce”.

“It’s time to get behind one candidate and get the job done so we can move on to the next challenge, bringing us one step closer to defeating Barack Obama,” she said with her husband standing next to her.

But while acknowledging he is lagging in the battle for delegates, Mr Santorum has vowed to continue campaigning, citing tepid support for Mr Romney, even in states the former Massachusetts governor has won.

On Monday, Mr Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said he would “go out and compete in every state”.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult as this goes on for anybody to get that magic number,” Mr Santorum said in an interview with CBS News, adding that chances were increasing of the nomination being decided at the convention.

‘Extraordinary victory’

Mr Romney has turned to attacking Mr Obama in advance of the Illinois primary, calling him an “economic lightweight”.


Mr Romney, speaking at a town hall meeting in the mid-western state, described the Puerto Rico result as an “extraordinary victory”.

“Those people who don’t think Latinos will vote for a Republican need to take a look at Puerto Rico,” he said.

Some observers thought Mr Santorum, a devout Catholic and opponent of abortion and gay marriage, might do well in the predominantly Roman Catholic territory.

But he angered many last week when he suggested Puerto Rico needed to make English its official language if it wanted to become the US’s 51st state.

The 3.7 million inhabitants of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island – which is currently a self-governing US commonwealth territory – will vote in November in a statehood referendum.

Because it is not a state, Puerto Ricans can choose party candidates, but will not be able to vote in the 6 November presidential election.


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President Obama: “If China would simply let the market work on its own, we would have no objections”

The US, Japan and the European Union have filed a case against China at the World Trade Organization, challenging its restrictions on rare earth exports.

US President Barack Obama accused China of breaking agreed trade rules as he announced the case at the White House.

Beijing has set quotas for exports of rare earths, which are critical to the manufacture of high-tech products from hybrid cars to flat-screen TVs.

It is the first WTO case to be filed jointly by the US, EU and Japan.

They argue that by limiting exports, China, which produces more than 95% of the world’s rare earth metals, has pushed up prices.

Environmental concerns?

The co-ordinated complaints are the first step in a process that could ultimately lead to sanctions against China.

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What are rare earths?

  • Despite their name, rare earths are not particularly rare
  • They are a collection of 17 elements: scandium, yttrium, and some 15 lanthanides
  • Some are as common as copper or zinc, while even the rarest occur in greater quantities than gold or platinum
  • They are essential in the manufacture of many electronic goods

“We’ve got to take control of our energy future and we cannot let that energy industry take root in some other country because they were allowed to break the rules,” Mr Obama said in Tuesday’s Rose Garden press conference.

“If China would simply let the market work on its own we would have no objections. But their policies currently are preventing that from happening. And they go against the very rules that China agreed to follow.”

In the press conference, Mr Obama also said his new trade enforcement unit – which he established last month, with China the primary target – was ramping up its operations.

“When it is necessary, I will take action if our workers and our businesses are being subjected to unfair practices,” Mr Obama added.

Beijing has denied the allegations in the WTO case, saying that it enforced the quotas to ensure there was no environmental damage caused due to excessive mining.

China’s Industry Minister, Miao Wei, told state media agency Xinhua that the country was “actively preparing to defend ourselves” against the WTO complaints and denied the quotas were trade protectionism.

“We feel sorry for their decision to complain to the WTO,” Mr Miao said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said: “We think the policy is in line with WTO rules.

“Exports have been stable. China will continue to export, and will manage rare earths based on WTO rules.”

China controls almost the entire world supply of rare earths

The filing focuses on 17 rare earth minerals which are essential for making products such as smart phones and camera lenses, as well as many renewable energy devices.

The rare earth complaints follow a WTO ruling earlier this year in favour of the EU. It found China had illegally restricted exports of other materials, such as bauxite, zinc and magnesium.

“Despite the clear ruling of the WTO in our first dispute on raw materials, China has made no attempt to remove the other export restrictions,” said EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.

“This leaves us no choice but to challenge China’s export regime againto ensure fair access for our businesses to these materials.”

The EU imports 350m euros ($458m) of rare earth minerals from China each year.

The US trade representative’s office argues that quotas are one way that China engages in trade protectionism on rare earths, including export duties and pricing requirements.

Welcoming Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping to the White House last month, Mr Obama warned that China must play by the same rules as other major powers in the world economy.


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Mitt Romney and his wife Ann look at a photograph of George Romney in Michigan 28 February 2012 Mitt Romney has emphasised his family ties to Michigan as part of his appeal to voters

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are going head-to-head as US voters in Michigan and Arizona choose their picks for Republican presidential candidate.

Both men have been campaigning intensively over the past few days. Latest polls give Mr Romney a marginal lead in Michigan, and a stronger advantage in Arizona.

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are focusing their efforts on other states.

Analysts say a victory in his home state of Michigan is key for Mr Romney.

He has long been seen as the front-runner and favourite for the nomination – and currently leads the race for delegates – but has struggled to win over a strong majority of conservative Republican voters.

The winner of the eventual nomination will go on to face President Barack Obama in the November election.


On Tuesday, Mr Romney appeared to acknowledge that he has had trouble winning over conservative voters in a state where he was expected to do well.

Mr Romney said his disconnect with the party’s right-wing stemmed from his unwillingness to make “incendiary” comments.

Rick Santorum greets diners at the Rainbow Grill in Grandville, Michigan 28 February 2012 Rick Santorum has been riding a wave of momentum following a hat-trick of wins in recent votes

He accused his rivals of saying “outrageous things” in an effort to win the backing of the Republican base, adding that he was not prepared to set his “hair on fire” in a bid for support.

He also attacked Mr Santorum’s recent move to target Democratic voters with an automated message criticising Mr Romney’s record on bailouts for the automobile industry.

Mr Romney accused Mr Santorum of trying to “kidnap the primary process” by attempting to turn Democrats against him. He told Fox News on Tuesday morning that the tactic was “outrageous and disgusting… a terrible, dirty trick”.

“This is a new low for his campaign and that’s saying something,” Mr Romney said.

Mr Santorum’s recorded message to Democrats said: “Romney supported the bailouts for his Wall Street billionaire buddies but opposed the auto bailouts.

“That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker and we’re not going to let Romney get away with it,” it continued.

Although only Republicans may participate in Michigan’s primary, electoral rules allow voters to temporarily change their affiliation on the spot – giving Democrats the opportunity to cast a ballot on Tuesday.

Mr Santorum and his supporters have also spent about $2m (£1.3m) on advertising in Michigan.

On the campaign trail Mr Romney had played up his ties to Michigan, where his father was a former governor.

Whoever wins in Michigan could gain crucial momentum ahead of next week’s “Super Tuesday” votes, which sees 10 states go to the polls.

Mr Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul are focusing their efforts on next week’s vote.

Focus on economy

After spending much of the past week campaigning on social issues, on Monday Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, turned his focus on the economy.

He challenged former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for putting social issues at the centre of his campaign, saying: “If the economy is going to be the issue we focus on, who has the experience to actually get this economy going again?”

Mr Romney, who used to run a successful private equity firm, told supporters at a campaign event that Mr Santorum was a nice guy but he would not be able to create jobs.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Mr Santorum told supporters it was a “joke” for Mr Romney to attack him for not being a real conservative.

The former senator also derided “climate science” and Wall Street bailouts – referring to legislative positions the former governor had supported.

He used an editorial in the Wall Street Journal to highlight his own principal economic initiatives.

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US politics glossary
Use the dropdown for easy-to-understand explanations of political terms:


A state-level election held to nominate a party’s candidate for office. Regulations governing them and the dates on which they are held vary from state to state. In some states, voters are restricted to choosing candidates only from the party for which they have registered support, however 29 states permit open primaries in which a voter may opt to back a candidate regardless of their nominal affiliation. In this case, strategic voting may take place with, for example, Republicans crossing over to back the perceived weaker Democratic candidate. Primaries first emerged as a result of the so-called progressive movement of the early 20th Century, which argued that leaving the nomination process purely to party bosses was inherently undemocratic.

In it, he took aim at his rival, saying Mr Romney was “attempting to distract from his record of tax and fee increases as governor of Massachusetts, poor job creation, and aggressive pursuit of earmarks”, and that Mr Romney’s plans did not go far enough.

His editorial followed remarks slamming Mr Romney at the weekend, who Mr Santorum described as “uniquely unqualified” to take on the key issues facing America.

Precarious lead

In recent weeks, Mr Santorum has mounted a strong challenge to Mr Romney in Michigan.

An average of polls in the state compiled by Real Clear Politics shows the former governor clinging to a narrow lead of 1.5%, although he maintains a more comfortable lead in Arizona.

A loss for Mr Romney in either state could establish Mr Santorum as a new frontrunner in the presidential race, correspondents say, and raise questions about Mr Romney’s ability to appeal to his party’s base.

Mr Santorum sprang an upset in the last round of voting, when he picked up three victories – in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado – in a single night.

Mr Romney currently has 123 delegates, compared to Mr Santorum’s 72, with 1,144 needed to secure the nomination.

Fifty-nine delegates are at stake in Tuesday’s primary elections: 29 from Arizona and 30 from Michigan.

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BBC’s Jim Muir: “People have started voting… but there are also reports of shelling and shooting in many parts of the country”

The Syrian government is holding a referendum on a new constitution as violence continues around the country, killing at least 20 people.

The new constitution calls for a multi-party parliamentary election within three months.

The opposition has boycotted the vote, calling it a farce and demanding President Bashar al-Assad stand down.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said “there’s every possibility” Syria could descend into civil war.

But she warned “outside intervention” could exacerbate the situation. “I think that as you try to play out every possible scenario, there are a lot of bad ones that we are trying to assess,” she told the BBC.

Activists say more than 89 people died across Syria on Saturday.


The Syrian government has pressed ahead with organising the referendum despite the unrest, setting up more than 13,000 polling stations for 14.6m voters.

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At the scene

image of Lina Sinjab Lina Sinjab BBC News, Damascus

The streets are filled with billboards encouraging people to vote for the constitution but the polling stations I visited were nearly empty.

At one school, two people showed up to vote in the 20 minutes I was there, although Ahmad Baalbaki, who was supervising the process, said 300 people had cast their vote.

Muneira, a housewife, says she voted “yes”. She hasn’t read the constitution but she supports the president.

In a central square, a pro-Assad rally is taking place in support of the constitution.

Nearby, a group of young men and women were handing out booklets to encourage people to vote.

One of them, Husein Saqer, said:”People don’t want to vote because they see no difference between this one and the other constitution, but we are here to tell them to vote”.

Voting began at 07:00 (05:00 GMT) and polling stations are due to stay open for 12 hours.

State television showed people voting in Damascus and various other places, and it all looked fairly normal, the BBC’s Jim Muir reports from neighbouring Lebanon.

But, he added, in many other parts of the country, it is far from normal, with explosions and shooting reported from the east, west, north and south – in areas where violence has been going on for months.

At least nine civilians and four soldiers were killed in the embattled city of Homs, the UK-based activist group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Violent clashes were reported in the central city of Hama, the north-western province of Idlib and in Daraa province, south of Damascus.

The vote is on a new constitution that would allow for more opposition to Mr Assad’s Baath Party, but it has been rejected out of hand by critics of the government.

One group described the new constitution as fraudulent and the referendum as a farce.

It pointed out that the regime had never respected the old constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations and bans torture.

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Hillary Clinton: “I think there is every possibility of a civil war”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed doubt about the timing of the vote: “On one hand you say you are holding a referendum and on the other you are attacking with tank fire on civilian areas.

“You still think the people will go to a referendum the next day in the same city?” he said at a news conference in Istanbul.

The US has dismissed the referendum as “laughable”.

Friends of Syria

The Observatory said Saturday’s deaths included 24 civilians in the embattled city of Homs and that 23 government soldiers were killed in clashes with rebel groups across the country.

The Red Cross has been trying to evacuate more people trapped in Homs’s Baba Amr suburb but admitted it had made no progress on Saturday.

Among those it is trying to help are two injured Western journalists, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy. It also wants to retrieve the bodies of another two journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who were killed last week.

Footage of mourning in the Khalidieh district of Homs, 25 Feb 2012 Footage of mourning in the Khalidieh district of Homs was broadcast on YouTube

Hundreds of armed rebels from the Free Syrian Army are holding out in Baba Amr.

Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting on Mr Assad to end his government’s 11-month crackdown on opponents.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who has been appointed the UN and Arab League’s envoy to Syria, called for all parties to co-operate in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

On Friday, a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group was held in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

Delegates from 70 countries issued a declaration calling on the Damascus government to end violence immediately, allow humanitarian access, and permit the delivery of relief supplies.

The UN estimated in January that 5,400 people had been killed in the conflict. Activists say the death toll now is more than 7,300.

The Syrian regime restricts access to foreign journalists and casualty figures cannot be verified.

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