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For the first time in the Fifth republic, an incumbent president was beaten into second place in a first round marked by a solid turnout (80.16%). Nicolas Sarkozy has qualified for the second round, but François Hollande is on course to become the next French president.
Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate, has ended his presidential term with an electoral disaster. Over the past few weeks, he has constructed a political Frankenstein, whose first name is Marine. Mrs Le Pen has demonstrated time and again during the campaign that the Front National remains the same xenophobic party, always intent on polarising voters with race politics: from halal meat to immigration or policies of “national preference”, the FN continues to play to the traditional tune of the old extreme-right. Le Pen can be grateful to Sarkozy. His very right-wing campaign was Le Pen’s stepping stone for her own success. Sarkozy should know that when it comes to hard right rhetoric, voters always “prefer the original to the copy”.
The first round results show that France is polarised and deeply divided. Sarkozy is fighting for his political life and I predict a nasty battle full of dirty tricks. In his address to his supporters last night, the president gave us a taste of things to come in the next two weeks. He promised to defend France from (illegal) immigration and there will be more talk on law and order.
Sarkozy’s right-wing campaign aimed to siphon off Le Pen’s voters. This strategy was designed by Patrick Buisson, an influential political advisor and former editor-in-chief of Minute, a far-right publication. It was successful in 2007, but it backfired this time round. Now Sarkozy faces a Cornelian dilemma: either he continues with this hard right stance and totally alienates François Bayrou’s centrist electorate (9.11%), or he shifts to the centre in which case he will lose the support of FN voters. Early signs are that Sarkozy will pursue his right-wing strategy and that he will push to extremes a personalised duel with Hollande. Sarkozy will not concentrate on policy details, but instead try to pick a playground fight with his socialist opponent. He will make the most of his alleged “superior leadership qualities” to win the hearts and minds of French voters. Marine Le Pen will do anything she can to help Hollande defeat Sarkozy, as she is to benefit from the defeat of the UMP, the governing party.
Early estimates show that the vote transfers from Bayrou to Sarkozy and from Le Pen to Sarkozy will be small in the second, round which makes a Hollande victory likely. Furthermore, the left’s total share of the vote — 43.87% compared to the 47% for the right and extreme right — is the highest since 1981. In 2007, the left totalled 36.5% against 45% for the right; and in 2002, 42.8% against 48.4%.
François Hollande finds himself in a strong position. He got the highest share of the votes for any left-wing candidate (François Mitterrand in 1981 and Ségolène Royal in 2007 had both secured 25.8%). The moderate Hollande does not arouse any public enthusiasm, but his prudent campaign has been strategically astute. He has received the backing of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Left Front) and Eva Joly (Green) without entering any negotiations with them. Centrist he has been, and centrist he will remain until May 6. He should receive strong support from Mélenchon’s (11.13%) and Joly’s voters (2.27%). He has behind him a unified and disciplined Parti Socialiste which contrasts with Sarkozy’s increasing isolation in his own camp.
The other major event of this first round was the emergence and strong showing of the Left Front, a new electoral coalition of left-wing forces. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, its candidate, led a dynamic campaign which drew impressive and enthusiastic crowds at each of his rallies. He is below the 15% that polls credited him with at one point, but his actual result remains impressive considering that he was promised a mere 4% of the votes six months ago. Supported by the Communist Party (PCF) whose candidate received 1.9% of votes in 2007, the Left Front is no nostalgic revival of 1970s class politics. It is a new party: economically anticapitalist, but open to green and gender politics as well as to citizens’ direct participation in decision making. Mélenchon was the only candidate to successfully take on Marine Le Pen in television debates. Mélenchon believes that there will not be any left-wing revival in France and in Europe as long as the extreme-right is in a position to blur the left-right divide by playing the race card.
Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European politics at University College London (UK). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org