As expected, the two main parties' top candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, have emerged as frontrunners from the first round of the presidential election in France. The country has escaped a replay of the shock scenario of 2002, when the leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did better than Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and displaced that socialist leader from the decisive second round of voting. Le Pen's daughter Marine may not have replicated that particular success - but by another measure, she has done even better. Scoring close to 18% of the vote, despite a high overall voter participation that usually works against the extremes, she drew a bigger share of the electorate than her father had ten years ago. Her strategy of distancing herself from her father's antisemitism and "mainstreaming' much of the rhetoric (but not the policy content) of her extremist anti-migration and anti-EU party worked. The reach of the Front National now appears broader than ever.
As France now gears up for the decisive second round of voting for its future president on May 6, the main focus will be on the duel between the centre-right President-in-office, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the man most political strategists already hail as the President-in-waiting, the centre-left socialist Francois Hollande. The socialist candidate emerges from the first round with strong political headwind: his first place in the polls energises his party and depresses the political troops of his centre-right opponent. Characteristically, Sarkozy, saddled with bad popularity ratings and the difficult burden of five years in office during a major financial crisis, immediately went out on the attack. He challenged Hollande to three TV duels rather than the one foreseen until now, with some of his allies taxing Hollande with cowardice and evasiveness for refusing to yield to his demand. The president must now hope to persuade more than half of Marine Le Pen's protest-prone electorate to vote for him on May 6. He must however do so without alienating all or most of the 9% who voted for the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou. This is a balancing act so difficult as to make a Sarkozy defeat as good as a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many observers.
Should Nicolas Sarkozy bring it off, many analysts even within his own camp expect an angry left-of centre-electorate to flock to the polls in such numbers as to return a centre-left majority in the subsequent elections to the French parliament on June 10th and 17th. France and her Europeans allies would then be faced with the unpalatable reality of one of the two leading countries in the eurozone entering a five year presidential mandate with what the French call "cohabitation" - in this case, of a conservative president with a left-wing parliamentary majority and government. For Europe, this would be seriously bad news. No one in Paris expects that cohabitation would produce anything like a government of national unity steering the country smoothly through the economically and financially difficult times ahead. Rather, previous experiences suggest a period of destabilising conflict at the heart of French politics, slowed decision-making, limited policy choices, and difficult interaction between France and her partners. Faced with such a prospect, even some governments of the centre-right grudgingly acknowledge in private that a clean double victory of the left would offer a better prospect for stability and efficiency.
There is some speculation in Paris over whether a President Hollande could expect to draw on his own Socialist Party majority in the Assemblée Nationale or whether he would have to enter some form of coalition or government agreement with a smaller party like France's struggling Greens or even the much reduced Parti Communiste. In either scenario, Hollande, given the extraordinarily strong constitutional position of a French president, would be largely free to conduct France's European policy according to his wishes. Serious constraints would arise only from pressures to call a referendum on major issues, or from the need to obtain a three-fifths parliamentary majority for constitutional changes.
There is much speculation about the degree of disruption Hollande would bring to European and more specifically eurozone politics. The socialist leader is serious when he calls for a refocusing of the eurozone's new economic governance framework towards more growth-friendly policies. He wants to enable the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg to extend more credit to small and medium companies, reallocate unspent EU budget cohesion funds to boost growth, create European project bonds to finance infrastructure and other growth-oriented projects, and change the relationship between the European Central Bank and the European Financial Stability Mechanism so that the latter can draw on funds of the former. Yet Hollande is neither a demagogue nor a revolutionary firebrand. With Spain and Italy facing darkening economic and budgetary prospects, a new push for more activist growth policies for the eurozone might not see him as isolated in Europe as some had initially predicted.
Clearly, a Hollande victory would be followed by a period of tension with Germany and other partners. How long it would last would be partly determined by financial markets' reaction to the new French policy. If markets stay calm, a President Hollande could afford to open up a longer period of European uncertainty. If not, a scenario of aggravated instability in Italy and Spain with a risk of market contagion to France is one no new French president can afford to provoke and sustain. It is impossible to predict how long it would take for the eurozone to come to a new consensus on austerity versus growth. But there is no reason to doubt such a consensus will be found. Hollande has said repeatedly that despite the cool treatment he received at the hands of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor would be his most important partner in Europe. Indeed, Hollande's personal character as a man enjoying the building of compromises and averse to aggressive leadership might soon become a diplomatic asset. Europe has no particular reason to fear a Hollande presidency.