The French vote “against”…

Journalist Fred Niel's says the first round of the French election shows France really cared about t

What a surprise! What surprise? Well, there isn’t one. That’s the surprise… No-one was expecting everything to go as predicted in the polls: Nicolas Sarkozy came on top in the first round, and will take on the second-placed Ségolene Royal in the final round of the presidential elections, on the 6th May.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took on Jacques Chirac in 2002 after pushing aside the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin, lost a million voters; and those who still voted for him were drowned in the sea of French citizens who took part in this election, thanks to an abstention rate of 16%, the lowest since the beginnings of the Fifth Republic. The result: he only got 11% of the votes, against 17% in 2002.

The shock of 2002 pushed many young people, traditionally more prone to abstention, to get their views heard in the polling booths in 2007. For the same reasons, many voters used a “vote utile” immediately, helping those who had a real chance of getting elected – Sarkozy, Royal, or Bayrou – instead of having the pleasure of voting for a “smaller” candidate (the Greens’ Dominique Voynet, for instance, has lost her lustre: only 1.57% of votes for her, compared to 5.25% for the ecologist candidate of 2002, Noel Mamere).

The high turnout proves that the French really cared about these elections. But if so many of them voted, it was often more to oppose a detested candidate, rather than to show enthusiasm for the ideas of someone else. It seemed vital to people to make a stance against a candidate who seemed too dangerous. A strong minority of socialists dislike Ségolene, who they consider barely competent, and too rigid; but they’ve decided to support her to prevent Nicolas Sarkozy, the ultimate bogeyman, from getting through to the Elysée. The vote for Bayrou is also a protest vote: the slogan “neither left nor right”, without quite knowing what would go in their place, contributed to his success. Finally, it’s with Sarkozy that we find a healthy dose of “committed” votes. If many vote for him because they loathe the socialists, for several voters he also embodies, in a positive way, the energy and the willpower which France is seen to lack today.

What now? According to an Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche, put together on the Sunday evening after the results were announced, Sarkozy would beat Royal 54% to 46%. That’s partly because many of the “centrist” voters for Bayrou will return to their roots, the right, in the same proportions: 54% of them say they will vote Sarko, 46% Sego. The polls, it turns out, were actually pretty reliable. Will they be this time too? Royal and Sarkozy are going to have an almighty scrap in the next two weeks in order to seduce the centrist electorate. Sarkozy, after seducing far-right votes with rhetoric about immigration and security, claimed on Sunday evening that he dreamed of a “fraternal France”, which would protect the weak. As for Royal, she made it clear she belonged to no “clan” (in other words: the Socialist Party and its old dinosaurs), throwing some coy glances towards the centrists. The battle has only just begun!