There are three takeaways from the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday : 1) never underestimate the people’s will to (re)shape their political future through the act of voting, or the strength of the message they want to send to their leaders ; 2) never underestimate the rallying power of the extremes and populist parties in times of economic and social crisis ; and, finally, 3) never discard a political leader from the electoral race too soon, as he might still demonstrate resilience. Recent experience elsewhere in Europe confirms these lessons : governments with a crisis on their hands were dealt severe defeats by the electorate (Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland) or preempted defeat by stepping aside (Greece, the Netherlands).
The high participation rate (around 80 percent) disproved pollsters who had predicted a democratic disillusionment. On the contrary, the election showed that French voters do not limit their interest in politics to the candidates’ personalities or program, but are in fact greatly concerned with the big issues, even where those were not directly addressed by the main candidates — above all, the vulnerability of the French social and economic model in an era of crisis and austerity, and the role of France in a divided Europe.
The fact that the left-of-center challenger, François Hollande, came in ahead of incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy (with 28.6 and 27.1 percent, respectively) meant that Sarkozy’s attempts to lure the voters of the far right away from the extreme right candidate Marine le Pen boomeranged. In fact, le Pen surpassed all expectations of her rallying power when she received 17.9 percent of the vote. Her rise is a major defeat for Sarkozy and reveals the frustration of the French voters who delivered what Hollande termed a “vote of crisis.”
The far right’s strategy of “normalizing” its image and discourse, and reaching out to those whom — as le Pen likes to say — the “Republic has forgotten,” has clearly been extremely successful, confirming the Front National as the third national party. The terrorist killings in Toulouse last month helped the extreme right’s agenda by focusing national attention on security and religious issues. In contrast, the far left candidate, Jean Luc Mélenchon, running with the support of the Communists, obtained an underwhelming 11 percent, substantially less than what the latest polls had predicted. Nonetheless, it means that a total of 29 percent of French voters, in an election with an unusually high participation rate, cast their votes for candidates that were running on an “anti-system” ticket. The challenge for Hollande and Sarkozy is now to bring these disgruntled voters back into the fold — a goal that they had both tried to accomplish and failed.
Unsurprisingly, neither Hollande nor Sarkozy are likely to publicly admit that their success in the second round on May 6 will depend heavily on their ability to appeal to extreme electorates. But they have already begun an aggressive “seduction” campaign for the coming two weeks. Hollande will have to unite the liberal electorate and reach out to the voters of the far left who preferred Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to the Green party, and to the Centrist party of François Bayrou (the biggest loser of the first round). More dangerously, he will also have to attract at least a part of Marine Le Pen’s electorate. Sarkozy, on the other hand, faces a divided right : he must convince the centrists as well as the far right — a balancing act that appears close to impossible. Look for Sarkozy to seek the lowest common denominator between all of right-of-center camps. Meanwhile, Hollande’s first reactions Sunday night indicate that he is poised to take the high road.In an obvious jab aimed at Sarkozy, the Socialist challenger suggested that he refuses to drive a wedge between different categories of the population, something the incumbent has been accused of again and again.
The first polls of the second round gave Hollande a 4-6 point lead, which has energized Sarkozy’s base. The fight will be ugly : Hollande and Sarkozy have both been waiting for a true confrontation. The former will have to prove his presidential mettle, and the latter will try to portray his challenger as unable to protect France from its internal and external woes. The test for France will be if it can emerge the day after, nursing its electoral bruises but ready to move itself and its continent in a positive direction.