Marine Le Pen grabbed the headlines in yesterday’s vote, but in politics, like football, results are everything. Le Pen will not be in the second round run-off on 6 May. The salient facts are that François Hollande comfortably surpassed François Mitterrand’s first round score in 1981, while Nicholas Sarkozy became the first sitting president of the Fifth Republic to fail to win the first round of a presidential election (Giscard, the only incumbent president to be defeated at the polls, actually narrowly won the first round in 1981).
The conventional opinion was that Sarkozy was toast if he failed to win the first round. But the higher-than-expected vote for Marine Le Pen (17.8%) and the disappointing performance of Front de gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (11.1%) mean the president sortant is still in with a chance.
On the face of it, the total ‘left’ and ‘right’ votes stack up pretty evenly, at around 44% each. This might seem to suggest that the 9% who voted for centrist François Bayrou hold the key to the second round. Game on, then?
Not quite. The first problem for Sarkozy is that Front national (FN) supporters can’t be relied upon to support mainstream right-wing candidates in the second round of French elections. FN voters are an unpredictable lot, many inclined as much to the left as the right (it’s not uncommon for people to switch between voting communist and FN) and, by definition, people who are disenchanted with mainstream politics. Most French psephologists regard them as swing votes rather than part of the ‘reserves’ of the right. Exit polls yesterday suggested only between 40% and 60% of FN voters will vote for Sarkozy, while a quarter may opt for Hollande. A third or more could abstain. Le Pen herself offered Sarkozy little comfort yesterday, talking about ‘implosion’ on the right and reconstruction ‘around our ideas’. Despire the president’s right-wing rhetoric, it may suit Le Pen more in the long-term to see Sarkozy crushed and the possible break up of his rival right-wing party.
François Hollande doesn’t have the same problem. He can rely on solid support from supporters of Mélenchon and Green candidate Eva Joly (although some may abstain, Sarkozy will get no joy here). He should also hoover up a couple of per cent from fringe left candidates Nathalie Arthaud and Phillipe Poutou (a former car worker who got 1.2% despite admitting on telly that he didn’t particularly want to be president). This all means than when it comes to the second round Hollande has much stronger reserves than Sarkozy.
So we can expect another two weeks of Sarkozy’s eccentric right-facing campaign, as he tries to maximise his share of the FN first-round vote. But this leads to Sarkozy’s second problem. Even if he gets all the FN’s vote, it won’t be enough. And the nastier he gets about foreigners, immigrants and the unemployed, the more he risks alienating centrist Bayrou supporters and galvanising the left to turn out in force for Hollande. But given the way the votes have fallen, he really has no other choice.
Ignore the sloppy reports that say last night’s results were a coup à pied aux fesses for the pollsters. In fact, the final polls on Friday accurately predicted a narrow win for Hollande and, while underestimating Le Pen and over-rating Mélenchon, both scores were well within the margins of error. Exit polls yesterday were still pointing to a comfortable win for Hollande in the second round. with a margin of between eight and twelve points.
So Team Sarkozy starts the second half a goal down, with tired legs and not much on the bench. But they will scrap all the way to the final whistle. In politics, like football, you have to believe anything is possible.