The first round results in the French presidential race were much as predicted. The nightmare of a second round pitting Francois Hollande against Marine Le Pen has been avoided. Now the real contest begins, with at least one head-to-head televised debate to come, which will give Nicolas Sarkozy the chance to prove to the electorate that his claims about Mr Hollande’s inexperience and irresponsibility have substance.
But though the headline outcome was as expected, the campaign so far has told us several things. First, there is a lack of positive enthusiasm for both principal candidates. The French have never warmed to Mr Sarkozy. He lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, as the English are wont to say. He has not grown into the office of President, so incumbency has been of little assistance to him so far. Yet though he led in round one, Mr Hollande has not been able to capitalise on this weakness as effectively as he might. The strenuous and successful campaign mounted by Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left has shown that his grip on the left of centre coalition he needs to mobilise is less than secure.
The distribution of votes shows that there are many disaffected voters, who do not feel that their views are well represented by the mainstream parties. Many French would wish the world to be other than it is, and hanker after a version of “socialism in one country” or a monochrome 1950s paradise. Hollande was pulled to the left on economic and fiscal policy by Melenchon, just as Sarkozy was pulled to the right by Le Pen on immigration and social matters.
The question now is whether Hollande has done enough to entice all the Melenchon militants to rally to his cause, rather than staying at home, while not alienating the centrist votes he needs. Mr Melenchon has helped with a clear endorsement. For Mr Sarkozy the balancing act is between persuading the National Front’s supporters, more numerous than expected, to see him as their best bet and securing the lion’s share of the votes that went to Francois Bayrou of the Democrtaic Movement. The arithmetic suggests that he can only win if he pulls in the great majority of both groups – a tall order.
All is not yet lost for the President. The polls tell us that many voters remain undecided- enough to swing the result. But he has played most of the cards left in his hand, and there is an unmistakable sense that power is slipping from him. The era of bling bling may be drawing to a close and the age of Flanby, a kind of blancmange pudding which gives Hollande his nickname, could be just around the corner.