|Waterloo Station. Image: Sunil Prasannan|
The first round of the French elections at the weekend has left the present incumbent of the Elysée Palace with some work to do if he wants to stay in power for another five years. The socialist challenger, François Hollande holds a slender lead and, as feared, there was a considerable vote for the extremist parties of the left and the right. Before you think this was a result based on political apathy, it is worth noting that the participation rate was around 80%, a figure that the UK last achieved in 1951.
On the face of it, the lead enjoyed by the PS candidate does not look insurmountable. After all, 28.63% v 27.18% does not seem too extreme. Moreover, traditional left of centre parties – the Left Front, the Greens and other smaller groups – probably make up around 44% of the vote, while more “natural” supporters of M Sarkozy make up around 47%. The moderate and centrist Mouvement Démocrate of François Bayrou (around 9%) potentially holds the balance of power in the second round.
All of this, however, is to slightly misunderstand the nature of French politics. The first round of voting, it is said in France, sees people vote with their hearts. The second round sees them vote with their heads. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has urged his Left Front supporters to back François Hollande, allowing the Socialist Party candidate freedom to target the centre ground. Marine Le Pen, however, has been far less accommodating to Nicolas Sarkozy. The traditional National Front voter tends to come from more of an urban, working class background whose second round vote, therefore, is more likely to be determined by social issues as much as immigration. This leaves Nicolas Sarkozy with a difficult strategy to adopt. On the one hand, he needs to appeal to a set of voters who are further to the right than his natural supporters. At the same time, he needs to appeal to the centre ground, who are likely to be alienated by precisely those policies.
Perhaps his best chance of an electoral victory, then, is that some crisis erupts in the next fortnight. Love him or hate him – and for most of the French it is very much the latter – he is perceived as someone at his best in difficult circumstances. By contrast, François Hollande has not held any governmental position and has not had the opportunity (or misfortune depending on your viewpoint) to see his metal tested. In those circumstances, the electorate might – just – decide that a safe pair of hands is the order of the day. Otherwise, Nicolas Sarkozy, like another famously diminutive Frenchman before him, may be facing his own Waterloo on Sunday week.