The conclusion of the first round of the French presidential election leaves two men contending for the top prize in the final election next month, the progressive Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the outcome probably dependent on who benefits from the surge of votes on the far right in this past Sunday's first round of voting. Intriguingly, though, the final contest for the presidency on May 6 may well turn on more progressive issues of job creation and economic growth-a trend evident across Europe-rather than conservative calls for continued fiscal austerity.
But first, let's look briefly at the results of the first round of French voting to discern the emerging trends. Neither of the second-round contestants is particularly pleased with their first-round performances. President Sarkozy recorded a 27.08 percent of the vote, and was only narrowly defeated by Hollande, who captured a 28.6 percent share. Martine Le Pen's reformed (but still hard-right) National Front party, however, exceeded expectations with and 18.01 percent share, while the far-left candidacy of Jean-Luc Melenchon attracted only 11.03 percent, having polled earlier in the campaign at over 15 percent.
On the surface, then, the right and center-right seem to be carrying the lion's share of the vote. One might normally expect that Martine Le Pen's National Front electorate would side with the incumbent center-right President Sarkozy, not least given his increasingly populist turn of late. But Le Pen's supporters are vehemently anti-European and anti-Euro. For them, Europe is characterized by the constitutionalization of austerity and synonymous with national decline.
Yet under the surface something else is going on among far-right voters. As a recent report by the Center for American Progress and the progressive French think tank Terra Nova illustrates, many of Le Pen's supporters are lapsed socialists who are upset by the lack of economic opportunity in the south. It will be almost impossible for them to vote for a president who was complicit in the drafting of the now-infamous European Union fiscal pact agreed in December last year, which imposed fiscal constraint on already struggling economies across the continent. And, as Martine Le Pen attempts to transform the National Front into a mainstream conservative party and overtake Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement Party, or UMP according to its French acronym, she has little to no incentive to persuade them otherwise.
The challenge for the Socialist Party leader Hollande over the next two weeks is to forge an alliance with the centrist voters who supported Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate who gained almost 10 percent during the first round vote, while retaining his attractiveness as a real alternative to disaffected voters on the left and right. The poor performance of the far left alongside in-fighting on the right should give Hollande room to maneuver.