For the first time since the inception of the Fifth Republic in 1958, a president running for re-election has failed to win the first round poll. Nicolas Sarkozy won 27.18% of the vote, finishing second to the Socialist candidate, François Hollande (right), who won 28.63% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday. Mr Hollande’s victory was not unexpected, with pre-election polls suggesting that he would win the run-off against Mr Sarkozy. Instead, the real surprise of the election was the significant vote for the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, who scored 17.9% - a record for a National Front (FN) candidate. While Mr Hollande and others on the left consider the results to be a rejection of the policies of Mr Sarkozy, the President’s supporters will look to the possibility of picking up votes from FN supporters. Opinion polls suggest that between 60 and 70 per cent of Mrs Le Pen’s voters will back Mr Sarkozy in the second round. Meanwhile, Mr Hollande has already secured the support of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front (FdG) candidate, and Eva Joly, the Green candidate. The second round will be held in two weeks’ time, on Sunday 6 May, with a televised debate between Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy scheduled for 2 May.
Despite predictions of voter apathy, turnout for Sunday’s first round vote was high, at almost 80%. Even though the participation rate was slightly lower than in the last poll (in 2007, where there was a record turnout of 84%), a higher percentage voted than in the 1995 or 2002 presidential elections. French voters had the choice of ten candidates - a wide field but one that is relatively small number in comparison to other French presidential elections. Some commentators have suggested that the more restricted list of candidates helped voters to better understand issues at stake.
Many observers predicted that the first round of the election would be crucial: while it seemed fairly clear that the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, and his centre-right opponent and current President, Nicolas Sarkozy, would go through to the runoff, there was much attention on who would emerge in first place. Mr Sarkozy’s relegation to second position has generally been interpreted by many - especially on the left - as a rejection of his record as President and his policies. The President’s score seems also to have been impacted by a strong showing for the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen.
Although she did not repeat the success of her father and founder of the National Front (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, in reaching the second round in 2002, she did achieve a higher share of the vote than ten years ago. Marine Le Pen’s success came despite an attempt by Mr Sarkozy to squeeze the FN vote by adopting strong positions on immigration control, including a promise to reform the European Union’s Schengen agreement on free movement of EU citizens. In 2007, the promises of Mr Sarkozy managed to prise far-right voters away from Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2012, the experience of his time in office did not prevent these voters moving back to the FN to the extent that more than one in six ballots was cast for Marine Le Pen. The record vote for the FN will have a large bearing on the second round campaign and the vote on 6 May. 4.8 million voters chose Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002; 6.3 million voted for his daughter. Mr Sarkozy now faces a dilemma: he may move to the right to pick up FN votes, but in doing so may risk alienating centrists, such as the supporters of François Bayrou, who may withhold their support for the President. After the first round, Marine Le Pen stated that Mr Sarkozy had ‘lost’ the election and did not call on her supporters to back the President in the second round (although it remains to be seen if this position will change over the next fortnight).
Soon after the announcement of the results, analysts almost unanimously said Mr Hollande was in a good position to win the second round. The Socialist candidate will be bolstered by a strong vote for left-wing parties: the vote for the combined left came to more than 43%, and Mr Hollande has already received the backing of the Green candidate, Eva Joly (who is also Chair of the European Parliament’s Development Committee), and the tacit approval of the Left Front candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who did not mention Mr Hollande but called on supporters “to beat Sarkozy”, asking his supporters “to mobilise yourselves as if it was a case of making me president”.
Presidential election, 1st round
Ségolène Royal, who ran unsuccessfully as Socialist candidate for the presidency in 2007, also tried to attract some FN voters, stating that the Socialists should understand those who backed the far-right leader. The centrist candidate, François Bayrou, hoped to repeat his high score of 2007 (18%), but garnered only 9.1%. He should announce his support to one of the two remaining candidates next week. The result for Mr Mélenchon was a slightly disappointing one, given his higher poll ratings (of between 13 and 15 per cent). Despite topping ten per cent, it seems that the ‘radical’ votes went to Mrs Le Pen instead.
The international press and some local analysts were scornful of the lack of focus of the campaign. Some secondary issues - like the reform of the driving licence system or the alleged ‘generalisation’ of halal meat in French supermarkets - attracted much more attention from the candidates and the media than issues such as the economic crisis and the public debt. The tone of the debate certainly favoured Mrs Le Pen and may have helped to inflate her score. Another interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that it was less passionate than in previous years (despite the high turnout). Several opinion polls have shown that a significant section of Mr Hollande’s support were expressing a rejection of the President, rather than voting enthusiastically for the Socialist candidate. The second round is now considered by many as a referendum on the performance of Nicolas Sarkozy over the past five years.
Arguments against European Union measures to combat the crisis seem to have been successful in the campaign. Mr Hollande has been vocal in denouncing the austerity measures to which Nicolas Sarkozy agreed, including the Fiscal Compact, and the alignment between France and Germany on many issues. If elected, Mr Hollande aims to renegotiate the Fiscal Compact and promote growth, rather than austerity, as a way of emerging from the crisis. Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed criticism of his European policy, highlighting his management of the crisis, but has also been critical of EU policies in other areas. If re-elected, he plans to renegotiate the Schengen agreement, in order to better control French borders - seen by many as a ‘dog whistle’ to FN voters. He also promises to fight for more flexible procurement rules that
allow governments and others to favour domestic suppliers (potentially introducing rules unilaterally if there is no agreement at EU level), and to freeze France’s contribution to the EU budget. In the end, the campaign and result did highlight the continuing issue of Europe in France, twenty years after the ‘petit oui’ in the Maastricht Treaty referendum. Around one-third of voters supported anti-EU or Eurosceptic parties - something that, along with the current President’s criticism of Schengen and some aspects of the single market - should worry EU leaders.
Opinion polls taken on Sunday showed that Mr Hollande is likely to win the election, taking between 53 and 56 per cent of the vote in the second round. Mr Sarkozy’s team sees the second round as a new campaign, and both candidates see the next two weeks as crucial - not least in picking up endorsements from other candidates. The organisation of a debate between the two candidates has become a controversial issue. Mr Sarkozy has called for three debates over the next fortnight – focusing on the economy, social issues, and international relations. Mr Hollande rejected the idea, stating that the candidates had previously agreed on holding the now traditional single televised debate ahead of the second round vote. Despite accusations from Mr Sarkozy’s team that his challenger is running scared, Mr Hollande will point to the desperation of a President that is running second. The debate will probably be held on 2 May, with a focus on the economy and employment. After the election of the President, parliamentary elections will take place, on 10 and 17 June, and the new incumbent of the Elysée Palace will hope to gain a parliamentary majority for the five years to come.