What did the first round of voting on 22 April tell us about the French presidential election? The turnout was very high, around 80%, contrary to what many commentators and pundits had expected. This confirmed the central place of the presidential election (“the queen of the elections”), which decides France’s main orientation over the next five years.
François Hollande with 28.63% of the votes came in ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy at 27.18%, the first time since the beginning of the Vth Republic in 1958 that a president trying to win a second term has failed to beat his challenger. This is a clear sign of the French electorate’s rejection of Sarkozy and a repudiation of his government’s policies — especially economic and social, with their resultant high unemployment. Sarkozy was “le président des riches” (president of the wealthy), but there was also a resounding “non” to his personal behaviour since, for many French people, Sarkozy has discredited the presidential role. In one particularly symbolic incident, he insulted a demonstrator in front of television cameras.
Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right Front National party, took 18% of the votes, not that different from the percentage her father won in the 2002 presidential election (more than 16.8%; another far-right candidate won 2.3%), and far more than her father’s 10.44% in 2007. Why this difference? In 2007 Sarkozy ran a dynamic campaign, defended ideas important to the far right (security, immigrants) and took some of their votes. This time, despite a campaign that was very rightwing (especially against immigrants and Islam), he failed.
There is another important reason for the Front National’s results. Under Marine Le Pen, the party has begun to transform from a fascist, anti-Semitic, anti-state party, to a party that wants to be respectable, which rejects anti-Semitism (but replaces it with Islamophobia), which supports the state and its role, and is anti-European.
For Sarkozy, the situation is very difficult: Hollande can count on those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon (from the far-left Front de Gauche, with more then 11%), and on the Greens and other small parties, with around 3.5%. It is the first time since 1981 that this leftwing trend has been so strong.
Who will the people who supported François Bayrou (a centrist candidate with more than 9%) vote for? And how will Marine Le Pen’s supporters vote?
The first polls showed that of Bayrou’s electorate, 34% will vote for Hollande, 40% for Sarkozy and the rest are undecided or will abstain. Bayrou has not taken sides as yet (in 2007 he refused to do so). The problem is the division among Bayrou’s support base. To gain Bayrou’s support, Sarkozy would have to make concessions and make his campaign more “centrist”, but would then risk losing the votes of the Le Pen supporters. He has embraced the Front National’s propaganda in his campaign for the second round: attacks on immigrants and Islam, attacks on the “elites” and the trade unions, attacks on Europe.
Marine Le Pen told her supporters at the Front National’s annual 1 May rally: “On Sunday, I will vote blank. I have made my choice. Each of you will make yours.” According to the polls, 50% of her supporters will vote for Sarkozy, 15% for Hollande and the rest will abstain. She is betting on Sarkozy’s defeat and wants to be seen as the “official opposition” to the future leftwing president. She is hoping Sarkozy’s Union pour la Majorité Présidentielle (UMP) will implode after the election — he has said that he will retire from politics if he loses; the UMP is likely to be divided, and weakened by personal ambitions (a fight has already begun between UMP general secretary Jean-Yves Coppé, prime minister François Fillon and foreign minister Alain Juppé). Le Pen also hopes that UMP members, and even members of parliament, will join her party. For her, the next general election, in June, will be decisive: even with 20% of the votes, she is not sure her party will get any candidates elected because of the particularities of French electoral law.
The polls show that on 6 May around half of Le Pen supporters will vote for Sarkozy, but not enough for him to win. His defeat will mark an important moment: for the first time since 1995, France will have a Socialist president, and in a situation of deep economic crisis.
Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique.
This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.