Last Sunday evening in Paris the mood outside François Hollande’s Socialist party headquarters was prematurely jubilant. A crowd of 2,000 mostly young, ethnically mixed urbanites, looking like a giant Bennetton ad with their jaunty scarves and European and rainbow flags, gathered in the Rue de Solférino, just up from the Musée d’Orsay in the city’s leafy Left Bank, to watch the results come in from France’s first round of voting in its presidential election.
For Hollande supporters, the news was good. Well, sort of. After months of campaigning, the Socialist leader secured nearly 29 per cent of the vote, beating out reigning President Nicolas Sarkozy, who got 27 per cent. As expected, the final runoff vote on May 6 will be a tight race for the middle ground between Sarkozy and Hollande. On closer look, there are more complicated political forces at work here. As with so much about this race, the final result will, in large part, be determined by the voting behaviour of extremists.
When the beaming, ice-blond Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, appeared on the jumbo screen for her concession speech, the Socialist crowd’s mood turned dark. The happy Benetton models began to boo and hiss. Le Pen is now out of the race but you’d never have known it from her smiling declaration, “My friends, dear French people, nothing will ever be the same!” In a sense she’s right. With nearly 18 per cent of the vote, Le Pen has scored a historic victory for her party and the hard right in France—even better than her father’s second-place finish of 17 per cent in the 2002 election. Hollande supporters might loathe Le Pen, but it’s believed her votes will determine the final outcome of the presidential election. If Sarkozy fails to woo LePen’s followers by swerving hard to the right (as he’s expected to do) it will be good for Hollande. However, if they line up behind Sarkozy for lack of a better right wing candidate, the opposite is true.
The hard left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon—a charismatic leader whom many commentators felt would shift the conversation back to France’s traditional equilibrium—came in a distant fourth with 11 per cent, followed closely by the moderate François Bayrou with nine per cent. So while the news is heartening for Hollande, it emboldens his political arch-enemies on the extreme right. The results suggest France today is a country deeply divided between younger, urban, educated voters who support the euro, multiculturalism and a return to the traditional primacy of the French state, and older elites and poorer, working class voters, many from Le Pen’s northern “rust belt” heartland, who believe economic protectionism, enforced secularism and a crackdown on immigration are the only way out of the economic crisis.
Hawa Turay, a 33-year-old office worker, travelled from her home in Fontenay-aux-Roses in the suburbs of Paris to join the Hollande supporters on Rue de Solférino. Her attitude summed up the mood: “I’m happy with the results but it’s too soon to celebrate. I really want change and I’m sick of the current politics on the right but at the same time I’m really afraid for the coming years.” Like many French, Turay feels salaries are too low and the cost of living is out of control. “My job is not secure and I pay 600 euros a month for a tiny apartment far from Paris. It’s too much!” she complains. Like many Hollande supporters, Turay is Muslim and of North African descent and views Sarkozy as borderline racist (he has banned face veils and spoken out against halal meat). “I don’t feel safe with him in control and I’m excited for something new.”
A few blocks away at the modernist headquarters for Sarkozy’s Union pour un Movement Populaire, the mood was glum by contrast. The crowd had dissipated, and those awaiting the arrival of their leader put on a brave face, insistently waving the French tricolor.
“Hollande got more votes because there are so many Muslims and people from Africa who support him,” said Michel DeSpais, a 62-year-old salesman from Paris who supported Sarkozy. “People say Sarkozy is racist but really he just wants everyone in France to be French. That’s why I think he must be president for the next five years.” He believes the final vote is still within reach. “If we get both Le Pen’s and Bayrou’s support, I figure we can still win it,” he calculated. It’s an optimistic view, depending as it does on Sarkozy’s ability to coalesce a majority of moderates and extreme right-wingers. How he will manage this while campaigning on a platform of experience, as opposed to Hollande’s more palatable “change,” is anyone’s guess. His image as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lapdog is as unpalatable to Le Pen supporters as his increasingly far right views on immigration are to those in middle. Hollande, on the other hand, presumably need only stick to being “Mr. Normal” to Sarkozy’s much-reviled “Mr. Bling-bling.” There’s still a fight to come in France, but at this point, it’s Hollande’s to lose.