French Election: Parsing Round 1's Results

France now faces one of the clearest ideological choices it has had in decades. Exit polls show conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal with commanding leads over other candidates as first-round balloting ended in France today. Neither comes close to the majority needed to secure the top job, but as the two of them face each other in the runoff on May 6, the French will have to decide between two very different visions.

Sarkozy presents himself as a partisan of freer markets, tighter law enforcement and warm relations with the United States. Royal—the first woman ever to make it into the second round—proposes a greater emphasis on social justice and education. She is also deeply skeptical of the policies pursued by the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush.

Sarkozy, speaking to supporters in Paris only 30 minutes after the first numbers were released, called the highest voter turnout in decades “a victory for democracy” and underscored the differences between his ideas and those of Royal. “By placing me at the top of this first round,” said Sarkozy, French voters “have shown their desire to see this debate through to the end.” What people want now, he said, “is a true debate of ideas.”

Royal heard the initial results in Poitou-Charentes, where she is president of the region. “A new campaign begins,” she told supporters. “In 15 days France must choose its destiny.” While emphasizing her own vision, Royal also seemed to warn against Sarkozy’s without citing him by name. “I refuse to cultivate fear,” she said.

Most polls put self-styled centrist François Bayrou in third place and far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in fourth, with the other eight men and women in the field picking up single-digit scores or less. Le Pen, often derided as an extremist but also admired as a straight talker, stunned the nation in 2002 by edging out the Socialist candidate and making it into the second round. He was then massively defeated by incumbent President Jacques Chirac.

Sunday’s electoral outcome varied depending on the pollsters, and definitive official results will not be available until later in the week, but the basic outlines are clear: Sarkozy was given anywhere from 26 to 30 per cent of the first-round ballots; Royal between 23 and 27; Bayrou between 16 and 19; Le Pen between 11.5 and 16.5.

There is little question that most of Le Pen’s voters will abstain or go to Sarkozy in the second round. Indeed, much of Sarkozy’s strategy was based on winning over Le Pen supporters before the first round, and they may have been responsible for his impressive showing.

At Socialist Party headquarters, former agriculture minister Jean Glavany told NEWSWEEK he’s convinced “Le Pen’s voters have already gone to Sarkozy.”

The big question mark is where Bayrou’s supporters will turn. They could move easily to the right, which is where Bayrou has his roots—except that Sarkozy scares many people. Royal is a moderate leftist by French standards, and there reportedly have been flirtations between the Socialists and the Bayrou camp, denied by both parties. Bayrou suggested tonight he does not plan to endorse either candidate but will continue trying to strengthen the center. In the crowd at his party headquarters, rumors circulated that he will focus his attention now on legislative elections due in June.

For all the talk about a battle of ideas, the French election now is also a clear battle of personalities, and both the leaders have considerable weaknesses. Royal, fairly or not, is rated low on competence. She never held a senior ministry post, and after a dazzling race for the party nomination in which her main message was “I’m listening to the people of France,” she’s had a hard time making the transition to a clear-cut espousal of comprehensible policies.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, has an incendiary reputation for tough talk and provocative actions that many analysts believe contributed to the devastating riots that swept the country in November 2005 when he was interior minister.

In the days ahead, expect to see Sarkozy emphasizing talk of ideas (with the subtext that Royal is short on them), while Royal and the Socialists play on fears of Sarkozy’s past provocations and his evident sympathy with the Bush administration.

Last fall, Sarkozy made a high-profile visit to Washingon. “A lot of people in France were shocked by Sarkozy going to see Bush,” says Socialist Party stalwart Gilbert Roger. If Sarkozy had been president of France in 2003 when plans were being laid for the invasion of Iraq, which President Chirac opposed, the outcome might have been different for the French, Roger suggests: “They know that their own children could have gone to Iraq if he had been president then.”

The greatest hope the Socialists have is that those voters who went to the polls in France today determined to cast their ballots for “anybody but Sarkozy” now have only one choice left.