April 23, 2012
THERE were scenes of jubilation outside the Socialist Party headquarters in Paris last night, after François Hollande topped the first round of the presidential election with 28.6% of the vote. As the night went on, his lead over Nicolas Sarkozy narrowed slightly. Official results now put the incumbent president on 27.1%. These two candidates will go on to face each other in the run-off on May 6th.
Some analysts are now suggesting that Mr Hollande’s slender lead leaves the race wide open. It is certainly true that it would be a mistake to underestimate the campaigning skills of the energetic Mr Sarkozy. But I just don’t see how at this late stage he can pull it off.
The argument in his favour is based on the disappointing score achieved yesterday by the Communist-backed contender, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He ended up with 11.1% when some polls had credited him with 15%, and suggested that he might even come in third place.
By contrast, on the far right, and as previously predicted, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen did better than polls had suggested, scooping up 18% of the vote. This figure, while not quite as much as some early exit polls suggested last night, is still more than her father, Jean-Marie, managed when he made it into the second round in 2002; indeed, it is the Front’s best-ever score in a presidential election.
Add up the score of the “right” (including a minor nationalist candidate), goes the argument, and you get 46.9%; more than the combined score of the left, at 44%. Ergo, all that Mr Sarkozy needs to secure a majority is half the centrist voters who backed François Bayrou, who got 9.1% yesterday.
But this reasoning is deeply flawed, in my view. Why? Mainly because although Ms Le Pen may get labelled “far-right” for her anti-Islamist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, she scoops up a lot of anti-Sarkozy and anti-establishment voters who are fed up with the cosy dealings of the Paris elite.
They include lots of working-class voters and ex-Communists in places like the industrial north of France, near her stronghold in the former mining town of Henin-Beaumont, who have no time for Mr Sarkozy or the political right.
Many of Ms Le Pen’s voters, therefore, will not simply swing behind Mr Sarkozy in the run-off. However much he may try to court their vote by sounding an even harder line on immigration than he has already, these are people who simply do not like the man. One poll suggests that only 40% of her voters will now back Mr Sarkozy; 27% would support Mr Hollande; and 33% are undecided or would abstain.
In other words, Mr Sarkozy has far less of a potential extra second-round vote than the raw numbers might suggest. This is why Mr Hollande looks so strong. He gets 44% simply by adding up all the left-wing vote, both from Mr Mélenchon and other assorted anti-capitalists. Unlike the votes on the “right”, these look safe for Mr Hollande. Last night Mr Mélenchon called on his supporters to vote for Mr Hollande, as did Eva Joly, the Green candidate, who got 2.3%.
So all Mr Hollande needs is a small proportion of Ms Le Pen’s votes, and the rest from Mr Bayrou. This is why, however well Mr Sarkozy does in the televised debate, due on May 2nd, his chances now look slim. Early second-round polls give Mr Hollande an eight-point lead in the second round, and not a single poll during the campaign has put Mr Sarkozy ahead.
The Socialist now has the momentum of his first-round victory, and is riding a wave of anti-Sarkozy feeling. My view is that the odds are still heavily stacked in his favour.
(Photo credit: AFP)