The first round of the presidential elections in France is not that easy to interpret as it might seem at a first glance. The outcome is neither a defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy, nor a victory for Francois Hollande, and even less is it a triumph for Marine Le Pen. The first round should be viewed as several separate events.
Nicolas Sarkozy did not lose, on the contrary
As the polls predicted, the incumbent French president lagged behind his main opponent - the socialist Francois Hollande - with an insignificant difference - 27.1% against 28.5 for Hollande. The difference is so insignificant and sends these two candidates (out of totally 10) to a ballot vote. Throughout election day in Sunday, April 22, commentators and journalists explained that the voters' turnout was high but not as high as in previous elections, although the difference here is also not that significant to deserve special analysis - over 80% of eligible voters used that right in the first round.
The lesson for the politicians, however, is that no matter the high voters' turnout, there was a large group of voters, who did not know till the very last moment whom they would vote for and they said afterwards that they had made a compromise because actually they did not have a choice - out of 10 candidates they found not even one whom they could wholeheartedly vote for. Of all the 80% voters who voted, 27 per cent preferred the incumbent president, in spite of the crisis and the broadening need for more spending cuts. This, against the backdrop of the outcome of the socialists, who made profligate promises, is a real support for the current policies of Mr Nicolas Sarkozy or at least he is perceived by his supporters as the lesser evil.
It has to be noted, though, that Nicolas Sarkozy practically started his campaign much earlier than its official start a month ago. The same is valid, by the way, for the rest of the candidates, but Mr Sarkozy had certain advantages, as he asked for support even abroad - from his strongest ally in the EU Angela Merkel. Besides, Sarkozy bet strongly on a campaign in the Internet, which was taking place much before the official campaign, quite legally for a fact, because the official campaign concerns only advertising on electronic media, like radio and TV, and it seems the Internet is not among them.
Sarkozy's team literally flooded the users of the social networks Twitter and Facebook with messages about forthcoming events, excerpts from speeches and comments. Specifically on Twitter the entire network was listened to and those who followed the campaign were also followed. At certain moments one could feel that he or she went to sleep with Sarkozy and woke up with him again. What his team actually failed with was the attempt to seize territory from the nationalists and most of all from the dangerously popular daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen - Marine. During the campaign before the first round, Sarkozy caused bewilderment several times in Europe, as one of the cases was his threat France to leave Schengen in order to tackle immigration.
Moreover, before using Schengen as a threat, he explained at an election rally that in France there were too many migrants and promised to halve their number if re-elected. To a certain extent this was interpreted by some analysts as an attempt to seduce Marine Le Pen's supporters, but Sarkozy himself has a history of a politician who is inclined to take tough decisions. We remember him tackling the Paris riots in 2005, when he was a minister of the interior, and then the expulsion for illegal stay of a significant group of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma from France, which again evoked sharp reactions in Europe and a condemnation by the European Commission.
After all, Marine Le Pen's results show that the attempts to take votes from her supporters not only failed but she even gained more than the expected no more than 16%, taking over 18 per cent. For the sake of success, Sarkozy sacrificed the most precious he had - the partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as in the last week of the campaign he again raised the issue of the European Central Bank's independence. According to him, the ECB must support growth (whatever that might mean), because otherwise there ill be no growth. Germany is firmly against any interventions of the ECB, aside from what is envisaged in the treaties.
Nicolas Sarkozy was welcomed in his headquarters in Paris by jubilant crowds but he himself did not look happy. He said nothing more than admitting that those elections showed that the French were exhausted by the crisis and that they wanted change. He said this with a sincere understanding in his voice, after which he thanked everyone for the support and announced that the battle was yet to begin.
Did Francois Hollande win?
From the point of view of Hollande's personality, he indeed has won, because he is the nondescript successor of the most certain candidate of the socialists from a year ago - Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was forced to resign from his post of a Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund because of a sex scandal, and therefore he lost his chances to participate on an equal footing in the race.He was the strongest trump card the socialists had and if this had not happened to him the expectations were that he would have become the next president of France. Except his past as a chief of the IMF, Strauss-Kahn also experience has as a respected minister of finance. Against the backdrop of his strong personality, experience and to some extent charisma, the appearance of the unexperienced and weakly known Francois Hollande, former husband of the main opponent of Nicolas Sarkozy at the 2007 presidential elections, Ségolène Royal, was disappointing even for people in his own headquarters.
The only practical governing experience Hollande has is that he was a mayor of the town of Tulles. Nevertheless, 28 per cent of the voters trusted him, which is a significant success for him personally. But for his party, however, it seems too early to take out the champagne, but even if there is an occasion to open it it will be good if the socialists made an assessment why did they not succeed to wipe Sarkozy out and the right-wing in general, if indeed the policies in the last five years were that bad for France. The country still has a decent economic state but not good perspectives. It is already downgraded and unless additional cuts are made the country will not be able to fit in the narrow budget deficit norms of the EU.
Against the backdrop of all this, Hollande was promising practically an increase of spending as he proposed the opening of over 60,000 public jobs, higher taxes for the rich, whom he said he did not like, although he is with high social status. Quite expectedly, Hollande and his headquarters were celebrating on Sunday night after the end of the election day, supported by cheering crowds. Although he looked uncertain throughout the entire campaign, on Sunday night he looked for the first time a bit stately and as if this was the moment when he seemed to have believed in himself. In case he wins the presidency, Hollande would face severe challenges.
He several times threatened during the campaign that if elected he would review some elements of the fiscal compact, agreed after a lot of tension and danger the EU to fall apart. At the moment, the pact is in a process of ratification by the member states and is deemed a major element of Europe's efforts to prove that it can tackle it debt issues. On Saturday, two key EU officials made some direct and indirect calls on Hollande to be cautious in his actions if elected. In one case EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn warned that member states had to stick to their commitments and in the other - a warning came from the chief of the German central bank - Jens Weidmann, who said in Washington during the IMF meeting with the ministers of finance and central bankers of the G20 that the European Central Bank had to remain independent and that the countries had to stick to strict budgetary policy.
Marine Le Pen performed expectedly
Many analysts were quick to proclaim Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter as the main winner of the first round of the presidential elections, because she surpassed the forecast of 16 per cent and gathered more than 18% of the votes, which, against the general turnout, is indeed a serious representation. But in order to be labelled a surprise and even "shock", as some media did, she would have needed much more than the two percentage points she topped to the predictions. Marine Le Pen's positioning is not a surprise for another reason too. Her father managed to position the National Front well when he reached a second round at the presidential elections in 2002 and then this was a surprise and evoked dismay throughout Europe against the backdrop of the experience with Jorg Heider.
In 2007, he reaffirmed the good performance of the National Front by ending up fourth. Marine Le Pen, aside from a leader of the party, is also a member of the European Parliament and has taken a good advantage of the credit that her father had earned. This is why it was logical to expect that she would take her party even further. As a typical far right and nationalist party, the candidate won her voters with slogans of quitting the eurozone and reducing illegal immigration. She also made calls for leaving Schengen.
A low intellectual campaign
What drew attention during the campaign before the first round was the stunning unanimity of a number of French journalists and commentators, expressing disappointment with the tone of the campaign. Many of them pointed out that the campaign was deprived of ideas, of real policies and that it was focused on individual attacks and empty phrases. There were many commentators who noted that this year's presidential campaign had hit the lowest intellectual level so far.
The second round will take place on St George's day (May 6), when there will also be elections in Greece and Serbia. So far, Francois Hollande has received the support of the far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. We are yet to see who of the rest of the candidates will cast their support for Nicolas Sarkozy. One thing is certain, though, whoever wins will be forced to stick to the policy of austerity, because the markets are watching and are already nervous, while on the queue of problems we now have Spain - a country of systemic importance for the eurozone.
*This is a rephrase of a famous French movie from the 1980s, called Pour La Peau d'Un Flic (For the Skin of a Cop)