04/22/2012 05:16 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2012

The Beginning of the End

The combination of Hollande/Sarkozy in the final round comes as no surprise. But that Nicolas Sarkozy ranked second behind Francois Hollande with just 24.4 percent of the vote (according to Ipsos estimates) is a nightmare for the man who received 31.2 percent in the first round of the 2007 elections. This is also the first time since the beginning of the Fifth Republic that the outgoing president has trailed his challenger in the first round. This is more than a disavowal; it's a rejection. This is the beginning of the end of a mandate the French people hope to visibly put down.

Little remains for Nicolas Sarkozy to hope to prevail. The voter participation rate was at 80 percent today, which is closer to what it was in 2007 than in 2002. It comes as a surprise to those who had expected it to be much lower. And a speech by Nicolas Sarkozy aiming to mobilize voters would fall flat.

Marine Le Pen, who has tried to stick to social issues, has done a much better job than her father, receiving an unprecedented 20.1 percent of the vote, thanks to her return to the Front National's basic themes: immigration and the fear of others. Her electorate will be divided at best into three pieces at: one half for Sarkozy, one quarter for Hollande, and one quarter who will stay at home on May 6. And this is where we may end up seeing a surprise.

The 8.6 percent that went to François Bayrou, who thought that the center still existed in France after 2007, will be divided between the two finalists.

As for Jean-Luc Melenchon, three quarters of his votes will be for Francois Hollande while the remaining quarter will probably abstain. Mélenchon, though he did manage to get 11 percent, did not manage the feat he had hoped for, which was to become a voice for all of the far-left, which has often represented over 13 percent of the electorate.

It is likely that Nicolas Sarkozy will cede the Elysee to François Holland on May 6. Even if a major event were to occur in the next two weeks. Like a last-minute "Papy Voise" event (named after the unfortunate old man who was assaulted just before the fateful election of April 21, 2002). Like unlikely success of UMP propaganda managing to terrorize the middle class with the threat of a tax-hungry Hollande. Or like another Toulouse, which itself in the end only had a very short impact on the campaign. There are really only three cases in which Nicolas Sarkozy could hope to win: a massive abstention, a substantial delay from the FN, or a major blunder committed by Francois Hollande.

This is also the real success of the socialist candidate: He has almost no faults. Certainly, his campaign was as charismatic as some had hoped, and he didn't have same fervor as in 1981 or 2007. But the French are tired of runaways that end badly. They specifically wanted a "normal" candidate this time around. And Hollande is just that.

He's no genius, but he's confident.

He lacks rough edges, but he's consistent.

He spurns excess, but is assured.

Not only did Hollande come in first, but he even managed, with 29 percent, to earn the best score of any Socialist candidate, none of whom have ever exceeded 26 percent. (Except Mitterrand in 1974 when he swept with 43 percent as the only candidate on the left, and in 1988, when he was up for re-election.)

The next two weeks will be violent. Nicolas Sarkozy likes a good brawl. And he'll surely enter the ring now that he has nothing to lose. Francois Hollande prefers to avoid conflict, but he'll have to put up a fight, especially against those who say that the chips are down.

In any case, this first round has said one thing: The French, who are more passionate than we all expected in this election, have given a strong indication that the future president's name might be François.