The first round of the French presidential elections ended in favor of François Hollande of the Socialist Party as predicted by public opinion research institutes. Nicolas Sarkozy scored a close second—his result better than what was anticipated a few months ago but still significantly below that achieved in the first round of the 2007 presidential elections.
The media and voter attention is currently focusing on the strong showing of Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN). The share of the vote won by FN is not only significant in terms of valid votes (17.9 as compared to 10.4 in 2007 and 16.8 in 2002) but also in relation to the total number of eligible voters (i.e. counting abstentions and invalid votes): 13.9 percent of eligible voters in 2012 voted for Le Pen as compared to 8.6 per cent in 2007 and 11.6 per cent in 2002. Evidently the National Front has managed to attract a number of protest and swing voters from the right as well as from those formerly abstaining.
But an equal interesting result—and what speaks more clearly in favor of Hollande’s victory in the second round—is the performance of the French Liberal Party Modem which halved its vote from 18 to 9 percent. The French Liberals, like the Liberals in most other European countries, tend to be divided between those tending to the left and those tending to the right, depending on whether they prioritize social liberalism or economic liberalism. Hollande’s achievement was to manage to attract to his camp the majority of left-leaning Liberals already during the first round.
The French left appears more united than in previous years, even if more on strategic rather than on ideological grounds. Left-leaning French voters are voting en masse in order to get rid of Sarkozy. Le Pen’s strong showing helps consolidate this movement by adding the strong moral argument of opposition to the far-right. This moral argument will also be attractive for many of the still undecided Liberal voters, who are unlikely to be happy with Sarkozy’s anti-immigration stance, which may even sharpen over the next two weeks.
Ironically, Sarkozy has a greater chance of winning the second round if he were to explicitly avoid fishing in far-right waters and, instead, explicitly position himself as a moderate. This could win him (back) Liberal votes and help mobilize some of the 9.5 million voters who yesterday decided to stay at home. But for this strategy to work Sarkozy would need more time or more publicity in direct confrontation with Hollande. This is also why his first move after the results were announced was to call for three rather than two televised debates. Hollande has said no—from his perspective, a wise decision.