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France Election: 5 Lessons From 2012 French First-Round Results

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France's President and candidate for re-election in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy, gestures as he delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Saint Cyr sur Loire, central France, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
France's President and candidate for re-election in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy, gestures as he delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Saint Cyr sur Loire, central France, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

A victory for François Hollande, a disappointment for Sarkozy and a triumph for Marine Le Pen; the first-round of French elections have been enlightening not only as a preview of the second round, but for future elections as well.

If the Socialist candidate, who took first place on Sunday, also comes out on top on May 6 through the support of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Eva Joly, the National Front party's unprecedented gains could dramatically alter France's political landscape and the parties’ strategic objectives going forward.

As we wait for the parties to reorganize, here are five lessons that we can draw from the first round of France's 2012 presidential elections.

LESSON #1: Favorite François Hollande On The Defensive

Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Aquitaine -- the Socialist candidate François Hollande leads in more regions and departments than most could count. Benefitting from a clear rejection of his UMP opponent, President Sarkozy, Hollande edged out the incumbent, netting 28.63 percent of the vote; first place puts the challenger in a better position to prepare for the second round, where he'll be the unquestioned favorite. In a barrage of polls published Sunday night, the representative from Corrèze attracted a strong showing from supporters on the left, but also from an important number of far-right and centrist voters.

However, there is no straightforward strategy for Hollande to win on May 6.

In a speech at his headquarters in Tulle, the Socialist candidate said he was “in the best position to be the next president,” a position for which he feels “honored" and a "sense of responsibility.”

The first round, Hollande said, was a repudiation of the last five years. He'll need to skillfully manage his place as favorite to avoid demobilizing the electorate, who, in defiance of bipartisanism in French politics, cast nearly half of all ballots for other political parties.

The UMP was quick to go on the offensive, calling for three debates before the next round of voting. The Socialist candidate has no illusions about Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategy. “Since he is in a difficult position, I have no doubt he will use any and all fear tactics, but they will not work,” said Hollande Sunday night before boarding a private plane to Paris.

Hollande plans to stay the course and “reach voters who are ready to come together for change” beyond the Front de Gauche, though the positive results of Sunday night alone will not be enough to guarantee victory a second victory.

LESSON #2: Nicolas Sarkozy Caught Between Le Pen and Bayrou

It is difficult not to feel the incumbent's disappointment, as Sarkozy had made winning in the first round a pre-condition to winning in the second round. Earning only 27.08 percent of ballots, Sarkozy not only means not only failed to siphon votes from the conservative National Front, but FN candidate Marine Le Pen surpassed her party’s previous record best results in a presidential election. To make matters worse, 2012 marks the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic that an incumbent president was not in the lead heading into the second round.

As soon as the first predictions came out, President Sarkozy began meeting with his teams to come up with a new strategy:

  • Attack François Hollande directly, forcing a confrontation and hope to provoke a blunder;
  • Appeal to those who voted for Marine Le Pen to persuade them to rally behind the incumbent president.

In front of supporters gathered at the Mutualité in Paris, Sarkozy asked for united support for the “love of country,” a patriotic tone intended to seduce right-wing voters. He also called for three debates with his Socialist opponent out of “an obligation to truth and courage.”

Even so, Nicolas Sarkozy is not guaranteed to receive support from another candidate, François Bayrou, whose votes he will also need to secure if he hopes to stay on at l'Élysée. Two weeks away from the second round, the French President will have to perform a delicate tightrope act if he wants to win on May 6.

LESSON #3: Marine Le Pen Changed the FN

While she may not have qualified for the second round, the FN candidate scored a significant victory on Sunday; having garnered 18.01 percent of votes, Marine Le Pen has proven herself to be not only the uncontested third voice of the first round, but also the face of a renewed National Front.

Winning 22.12 percent in Alsace, 25.91 percent in Gard, where she came out on top, and 24.38 percent of votes in Corsica, where she beat François Hollande by a slim margin, Le Pen confirms and reinforces the political foothold inherited from her father. For Le Pen, the votes validate her strategy to rehabilitate the National Front, by returning to traditional refrains of immigration, Islam and security late in the campaign.

The challenge now for the far-right is to build from this electoral capital, so coming to Nicolas Sarkozy’s rescue is out of the question. Marine Le Pen dreams of growing the FN into the country’s next principal right-wing party, built on the ruins of Sarkozy's UMP. Even if support for Sarkozy seems unlikely, Le Pen stated she would not decide before May 1.

“Faced with an outgoing president at the head of a considerably weakened party, we now represent the only true opposition to the ultra-liberal, lax and libertarian Left,” Le Pen said in Paris on Sunday night.

LESSON #4: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Fourth Man, but Second On the Left

Sitting in fourth place with 11.13 percent of the vote, considerably less than the 15 percent predicted in last week’s polls, Jean-Luc Mélenchon must also draw conclusions from a campaign that was successful in some ways, but ultimately disappointing.

The bad news is that he won’t be the third man of this presidential election, a failure that will prevent him from putting as much pressure as he would have liked on François Hollande leading into the second round.

On the positive side, Mélenchon is the second most important force on the Left. With a final tally ten times greater than what Marie-George Buffet achieved in 2007, the Front de Gauche candidate becomes a significant player within a new political landscape. Convinced that he holds “the key to the final outcome,” Mélenchon put out a call to his supporters to come out “May 6, without asking anything in return, to defeat Sarkozy.”

Mélenchon's next step will be to consolidate his electoral capital, an often fragile assemblage of voters from the far-Left, Green Party and left of the Socialist Party, to build a large party uniting the left-of-the-left. The legislative elections also represent an opportunity for the Front de Gauche to test its electoral strength beyond the charisma of its vibrant spokesperson.

LESSON #5: François Bayrou: Failure of the Candidate, Arbiter of Last Resort

With a third and probably final defeat in his fight against bipolarization, François Bayrou seems to have lost all hope of one day becoming president of the Republic, an ambition he has held since his excellent election results in 2007. But Bayrou must also resign himself to playing the arbiter of last resort in a campaign dominated by two powerful outsiders, Marine Le Pen on the Right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the Left.

Bayrou's campaign director, Marielle de Sarnez, told TF1 the disappointitment of only gaining 9.11 percent of the vote:

François Bayrou made some true statements about the state of the country, he is one of the only candidates to have proposed a clear way forward and spoken the truth to the French people, so yes, I am disappointed.

Bayrou received a frosty reception at MoDem headquarters, and tensions within the party could further weaken the representative from Béarn’s position. One thing is certain: Bayrou's MoDem party will decide "collectively" if it will give voting recommendations. “I will speak with the two second-round candidates and let them know what is essential for us. I will listen to their responses in the coming days and make a decision,” said Bayrou to his supporters at the MoDem headquarters in Paris.

But would recommendations be followed? The centrist candidate’s electorate is currently divided into roughly three parts: a third will vote for Hollande, another third for Sarkozy and the rest would prefer to abstain or put off their decision. The only hope for preserving the already fragile connections within the disparate centrist family would be to hold a large rally ahead of the legislative elections. “There is an urgent need to create a force for equilibrium in the center that is resistant to extremes and rhetoric.”

Whether these were the words of a wise old sage or of a politician's swan song remains to be seen. But between now and May 6, a lot of votes will go to someone new.

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Filed by Geoffroy Clavel