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.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.