Hollande takes the first round in France

Exit polls put Socialist candidate ahead of Sarkozy as support for Le Pen surges.

Update: The final result of the first round gave François Hollande a narrower-than-expected lead over Sarkozy. Hollande won 28.6 per cent of the vote, with Sarkozy on 27.1 per cent. Marine Le Pen won 18.1 per cent of the vote, a lower share than suggested by the exit poll but still a record result for the National Front. The Left Front's Jean-Luc Mélenchon was in fouth place on 11.1 per cent, with François Bayrou behind him on 9.1 per cent.

The official exit poll for the first round of the French presidential election has just been released and, as expected, François Hollande is on course for victory. The Socialist candidate has 28.4 per cent of the vote, with Nicolas Sarkozy trailing on 25.5 per cent, the first sitting president to lose the opening round of a French election.

Of note is the depressingly large vote for Marine Le Pen, who appears to have benefited from Sarkozy's shamelessly demagogic campaign. The poll suggests she has won 20 per cent, the highest-ever level of support for a National Front candidate. Sarkozy will hope that he can win the run-off on 6 May if enough NF voters transfer their support to him, but polls currently suggest that only 45 per cent will do so, with 12 per cent backing Hollande and the reminder abstaining.

The Left Front's Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was in third place at one point, is currently a distant fourth with 11.7 per cent of the vote. In a boost for Hollande, he immediately urged his supporters to back the Socialist in the second round in order to defeat Sarkozy. François Bayrou, the eternal "third man" of French politics, is in fifth place on 8.5 per cent.

Based on tonight's results, Hollande is likely to become France's first Socialist president since 1995, when his mentor François Mitterand was in the Elysée. Another shift to the right by Sarkozy would risk alienating the centrist voters he needs to have any hope of victory.

Socialist candidate François Hollande appears after the results of the first round of the 2012 French Presidential election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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