Result brings Hollande a step closer to presidency

Mon, Apr 23, 2012, 01:00

A determining factor will be le Pen’s 18.5% of voters and what they will do in second round

THE GAP may look small at first glance, but make no mistake: the projected results of yesterday’s first round, putting François Hollande three points ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy, bring the Socialist Party’s candidate a step closer to becoming only the second left-wing French president since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

Hollande’s score, 28.8 per cent, is three points higher than that received by his former partner Ségolène Royal in 2007, whereas Nicolas Sarkozy’s, 26.1, is five points lower than his score in the first round five years ago. It’s also at the lower end of the support range that opinion polls gave him last week.

In theory it doesn’t matter if a candidate finishes first or second, but in practice the poll-topper goes into the run-off campaign with momentum that the runner-up can often find hard to resist.

The aim behind Sarkozy’s strategy over the past year has been to finish in pole position in the first round and gather enough momentum to propel him to victory two weeks later.

“If he comes second, he’s finished,” one of his advisers said recently.

This was why Sarkozy worked so assiduously – and successfully – to persuade smaller right-wing and centrist candidates from standing against him.

But winning the first round duel against Hollande was only one of the planks of Sarkozy’s strategy. The second was to contain the National Front.

The formula behind Sarkozy’s 2007 election was that he drew large chunks of the far-right

vote in the northern industrial heartlands and the southeast away from Jean-Marie Le Pen (leaving the front’s founder at 10 per cent) while claiming enough of the centrist vote to push him over the line.

He tried precisely the same thing this time, which is why he spent weeks focusing on immigration and crime before abruptly dropping those themes to concentrate on deficit reduction and economic management.

What yesterday’s results show is that the two planks of Sarkozy’s strategy have failed. The centrist François Bayrou’s vote is significantly down (by eight points) on 2007, but much

of that support has gone to Hollande.

And not only has the National Front made up the ground it lost in 2007, but Marine Le Pen, in her first presidential election, has achieved the highest score in the party’s history – two points higher than the score that allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen cause a sensation by qualifying for the second round 10 years ago.

The paradox is that while Sarkozy’s two-pronged strategy has failed, he is still in the race. Had Le Pen’s vote been three points lower and the left radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s three points higher – as some recent polls suggested – Hollande could have begun preparing to move into the Élysée Palace.

What complicates matters is the question of what the 18.5 per cent of voters who chose Marine Le Pen will decide to do in the second round.

Her high score raises a delicate question for the president. Does he opt against the traditional second round strategy of tacking to the centre and instead veer further to the right in the hope of attracting the bulk of Le Pen’s voters, knowing this will alienate most of the 9 per cent who opted for the centrist François Bayrou

(a former minister in a right-wing government)?

On the face of it the calculation is simple: Le Pen has 18.5 per cent, Bayrou only half that share. But National Front voters are quite a mixed group. Some 60 per cent of them, according to an Ipsos poll yesterday, intend to switch to Sarkozy in the second round.

Many of them come from the communist and socialist tradition, and it’s a reasonable assumption that Marine Le Pen’s shift over the past year towards left-wing rhetoric and a statist economic platform played some part in raising her vote. Some 18 per cent of front voters say they will support Hollande on May 6th, and 22 per cent say they will abstain.

One of the most closely-watched features of a first round result is the balance of forces between the right and left. According to projections, the total left-wing vote yesterday was about 45 per cent. That brings the left to a level it hasn’t reached since the 1980s, when it won the presidency.

Much of the attention in the coming days will focus on Marine Le Pen’s success in her first presidential election, but the bottom line is that this is still Hollande’s election to lose.

Sarkozy is not out of it yet – far from it – and a fiery speech to supporters last night, in which he called for three TV debates against Hollande (the socialist wants just one) and urged those who “love France” to join him, showed how the role of challenger might play to his strengths quite well.

The question is: will the wind at Hollande’s back be strong enough to push him over the line, or does this strange campaign have another twist left in it yet?