For the second election in a row, the runoff for the French presidency will be a contest between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Results from Sunday's first round show the incumbent, Macron, on 28 per cent with Le Pen in second place on 23 per cent. Just one percentage point behind Le Pen was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical-left firebrand who once said it was legitimate for Russia to annex Crimea.
The result is a remarkable illustration of how the French political landscape has been upended over the past decade. The combined vote of the two blocs that held the Élysée Palace continually from 1958 to 2017 came to a meagre 7 per cent. Valérie Pécresse, selected by the centre-right Les Républicains as the best hope of putting up a credible challenge to Macron, did not even reach the 5 per cent threshold for recouping her campaign expenses. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party candidate, came 10th on less than 2 per cent. For both parties, it was a disastrous day.
The left-right cleavage has been replaced by a contest between nationalists and internationalists. Macron told his supporters on Sunday night that he stood for "progress and openness", while Le Pen, a eurosceptic who pledges to withdraw France from Nato's military command structure, said she would restore French "prosperity and grandeur". Le Pen has been an open admirer of Vladimir Putin, but in a campaign that focused on the cost of living, the Ukraine crisis did her little damage.
The key to victory will be the Mélenchon vote. The veteran left-winger has urged his supporters not to help Le Pen, but polls suggest a third of them will do so anyway
Macron goes into the second round on April 24th as frontrunner, and with a larger first-round vote than he won five years ago. But he is not assured of victory. He cannot count on other parties lending him their voters to form a "republican front", as Jacques Chirac could when he faced off against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. French politics are too bitter and too fractured for that, and Marine Le Pen is a more formidable politician than her father. She is also assured of support from most of the 7 per cent of voters who opted for the anti-immigration polemicist Éric Zemmour on Sunday.
The key to victory will be the Mélenchon vote. The veteran left-winger has urged his supporters not to help Le Pen, but polls suggest a third of them will do so anyway while another third plan to abstain and the remainder say they will side with Macron. A low turnout would work to Le Pen's advantage, so Macron will have to spend the next two weeks broadening his campaign and speaking directly to those convinced his policies favour the elite. He ceded momentum to Le Pen in recent weeks, coming late to the campaign trail and then struggling to capture the national mood. He has 14 days to save his presidency and avert an outcome that would send shockwaves across Europe.