The results of the first round in the French presidential elections portend a tough battle in the next few weeks between Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. The campaign was conditioned in the first round by the disturbing upsurge of the extreme right, as represented by Marine Le Pen. While the whole of the French right, including its extreme wing, is strong — albeit less so than in 2007 — this is the first time that an incumbent president has not emerged with head held high from such a confrontation. The ballot boxes have reflected a divided France, as well as the weariness produced by Sarkozy’s presidential style and the reforms and cutbacks he has introduced.
The results and the opinion polls suggest that, if he makes no mistakes, Hollande has a good chance of making it into the Élysée Palace after the second round, which will take place on May 6. Sarkozy would thus become the 11th, and most important, euro-zone head of state or government chief swept away by the tsunami of the financial and economic crisis that broke in 2008 — to which must be added other leaders outside the monetary union, such as Britain’s Gordon Brown.
Hollande has an edge over his rival, in spite of the boost Sarkozy obtained from his expeditious handling of the terrorist attacks in Toulouse and Montauban. Hollande has achieved this edge quietly, and with rhetoric of the left. But, as occurred with Mitterrand, the Socialists are not enough in themselves. They will need a good deal more than the unconditional support of the Left Front promised on Sunday by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished in fourth place, a weaker showing than expected.
What is most worrying is not only that the result attained by Marine Le Pen is the highest ever attained by the National Front, but also that her anti-EU and xenophobic line has contaminated the mainstream of French political discussion. The main casualty has been Sarkozy himself, who, on May 6, will need right-wing votes that are by no means guaranteed to him. The voters of the centrist François Bayrou, who achieved a more-than-decent showing, hold one of the keys for the second round.
Throughout Europe and beyond, there are concerns over these elections, in which diverse conceptions of continental integration are at odds. While Sarkozy came closer to the views of Hollande in the final stretch — to the effect that the EU, and especially the euro zone, ought to be designing strategies of growth and not just of asphyxiating austerity — they are separated by other elements, such as immigration control in the EU. It would be odd if Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s principal ally in the EU were a Socialist in the Élysée Palace; but this is only, apparently, due to the fact that Sarkozy was Zapatero’s ally. The high voter turnout indicates how much is at stake. The next two weeks will see a contest between two options that are clearly differentiated in many areas. But change in France may lead, moreover, to a change throughout Europe — a necessary change.