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.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.