On April 22, the first round of the French presidential elections, a record-breaking 85 percent of French voters went to the polls, giving Nicolas Sarkozy (of the currently governing right-wing UMP, the Union for a Popular Movement) a decisive 31.7 percent victory over his closest rival, Socialist Ségolène Royal, who got 25.87 percent. The overambitious centrist François Bayrou, representing the Union for French Democracy, or UDF, was left in limbo with 18.57 percent; the aging agitator Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the Front National, was put out to pasture with 10.44 percent; and the totals for six anticapitalist extremists and two right-wing mavericks were negligible. Voters obviously want a clear-cut, left-right confrontation for this Sunday’s second and final round. And Sarkozy approaches the May 6 finish line a strong favorite of pollsters, who predicted the first-round results accurately. Their current estimates show him beating Royal, 52 percent to 48.
Domestic interest in the election is at an all-time high. On the first Election Day, Sunday morning markets bustled with festive activity as people shopped for election-night parties. Voters flocked to polling places, waiting as long as an hour and a half to cast their votes. Polling places for French citizens worldwide reported comparable interest. Political TV programs and election-night news coverage have had record audiences.
France’s two-round presidential voting system, with its easy access to the ballot and its requirements for equal airtime, allows marginal candidates to dominate the first-round debate. Now, losing candidates are consoling supporters by arguing that voters skipped the extremes and went directly to their second-round choices. Communist Marie-George Buffet, for example, scored a meager 2 percent, but claims that her “real” vote was much stronger.
In the brief interval before the final round, the runoff candidates are scrambling to pick up the extra votes that they need. A slight but persistent right-leaning majority in France puts Royal at a disadvantage. Sarkozy’s first-round victory confirmed his popularity, which has been growing for years—but it coexists with a virulent anti-Sarkozy campaign nurtured by Islamists, punk jihadis, racaille, extreme leftists, anti-Semites, and the like. And their attacks have found a way into the discourse of Sarkozy’s legitimate political opponents. One website featured a doctored image of a snarling Sarkozy set in the middle of a Star of David, its points marked “Tel Aviv” and “Washington.” The cover of the current issue of Marianne, a freewheeling political weekly, shows Sarkozy shaking hands with the American president and questions whether France wants its own version of George W. Bush. Royal, who always refers to Sarkozy as “brutal,” says that she certainly wouldn’t shake hands with Bush. Le Pen dismissed Sarkozy as an immigrant unfit to run for president. All the defeated anticapitalist candidates are urging their supporters to vote for Royal simply because Sarkozy must not be allowed to win.
What should we make of these arguments now that voters, in a record turnout, have chosen Sarkozy by a wide margin? Sarkozy’s opponents try to conceal their undemocratic contempt for the popular will by portraying themselves as citizens revolting against a diabolical and dangerous candidate. There is every reason to expect that the strategy will backfire today, when Royal, face to face with Sarkozy in an official debate, will have to defend her platform, stand on her competence, and be judged by her capacity to speak to voters’ concerns.
The UDF’s François Bayrou, meanwhile, after being eliminated in the first round, wriggled his way back onto the scene by luring a panicky Royal into an ersatz televised debate, thus creating the illusion that he was still in the race. Royal tried to present their public dialogue as a gesture of democratic openness, while obviously hoping that Bayrou would rally to her side and deliver the votes that she desperately needs. (She nearly betrayed her own party by parroting Bayrou’s slogans about the futility of governing through opposing blocs.) Now Bayrou thinks that he’ll create a centrist party, the Parti Démocrate (PD), in time for the June legislative elections.
UDF deputies are throwing their support to Sarkozy, and Royal is grasping at straws. In an interview with Le Monde, Royal courted centrists by announcing that she might appoint Bayrou’s favorite, Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as her prime minister, but also implied that she might name Bayrou himself. Then she veered from the center to the far left, appointing antiglobalist ex-candidate José Bové to a mission on globalization and agricultural self-sufficiency. Royal’s political striptease, which reflects her confusion and insecurity, has provoked teeth-gnashing in the Socialist Party.
Four days from the final round of voting, the anti-Sarko forces are mobilizing, the banlieue movement is making threatening noises, and labor unions are promising what they call a “social third round”: mass demonstrations to force Sarkozy, should he be elected president, to back down on any attempt at reform. Whatever the final score, the democratically elected president who moves into the Elysée Palace on May 17 will need a strong will and a clear mind.