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Forget Merkel. France's far-right party leader, Marine Le Pen, could be the one to put Sarkozy back in the office on May 6.
LONDON, UK — Campaign strategists for both Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande will be scrambling on Monday to make sense of a first-round presidential vote that left neither with a clear path to victory — and showed a surprise level of support for a far-right candidate.
As many analysts expected, Socialist Hollande scored higher than incumbent Sarkozy in Sunday's election, but thanks to a surge in the popularity of Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigration National Front party, a easy win is no longer the foregone conclusion that many predicted.
Hollande took 28.8 percent of the vote against Sarkozy's 26.1 percent, meaning they will face each other in a run-off vote on May 6. But what was expected to be a simple referendum on differing plans to rescue France's struggling economy has been complicated by Le Pen's showing of 18.5 percent.
Read more: First-round results in French poll
As horse-trading begins for the support of those who voted for the eight lower-polling candidates now eliminated from the race, the problem now facing both Hollande and Sarkozy is how they can capitalize on the far-right turnout.
Some analysts said center-right Sarkozy is most likely to benefit from Le Pen's success, others argued it could derail him. Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party his daughter now leads, said the result put the National Front on track for big wins in June parliamentary elections.
Le Pen's success also raises the possibility that French opinion was swayed by a series of shootings in southern France last month involving a 23-year-old terrorist who claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda. At the time, Le Pen said the incident showed that the "Islamic fundamentalist threat has been underestimated in our country."
That said, Le Pen has doubtlessly attracted considerable support for her protectionist economic policies and for being the only conservative candidate proposing to take France out of the euro.
"Pollsters have always had difficulty assessing the Le Pen vote, as it carries a lot of stigma and people feel that they have to hide [their support for her party]," French political commentator Agnes Poirier told GlobalPost.
"It's always the case that the Le Pen vote is underestimated. Also, not all of the Le Pen voters are racists and fascists, many are just using this way of expressing raw anger and dissatisfaction with 'the system'."
"The system," currently headed by Sarkozy of the Union For a Popular Movement party, governs a country at one of its lowest ebbs in recent times. Sarkozy has taken much of the blame.
France's economic growth currently stands at 0.2 percent, down from 0.5 percent when Sarkozy took office in 2007. The budget deficit has risen over the same period from 2.5 percent of GDP to 5.2 percent, and unemployment rates have climbed from 8.3 percent to a 12-year high of nearly 10 percent.
The president has spent much of the election campaign championing his economic credentials as one half of "Merkozy" — the unlikely Franco-German alliance of Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel that has been the driving force of efforts to save the debt-stricken euro zone.
But his efforts have won him few friends at home, particularly among those who remember the flashy behavior of his early months in office (and the soap opera of his high-profile divorce and subsequent marriage to model and singer Carla Bruni).
He notably enjoyed a brief spike in popularity for his tough response to the Toulouse shootings, but this soon waned.
Many expected that Hollande would benefit as much from Sarkozy's unpopularity as he would from proposing a tax and spend strategy for hauling the world's fifth-largest economy out of the doldrums.
Instead, amid concerns over his proposed business taxation levels and the timescale of his plans to balance the budget, he has had to share the anti-Sarkozy sentiment with others.
This meant that Jean-Luc Melenchon of the extreme Left Front party took 11.7 percent of Sunday's vote, while Francois Bayrou of the centrist Democratic Movement gained 8.8 percent. Together, the eight eliminated candidates accounted for about 40 percent of the ballot.
Read more: What the French election means to Europe
Just minutes after the exit polls forecast his loss, Melenchon urged his supporters to use their next vote to "fight against Sarkozy." Other candidates have been less explicit in directing their followers, leaving Hollande and Sarkozy to work out how to win them over.
According to Poirier, Hollande is unlikely to change his tactics because he will naturally appeal to sufficient voters across the left-leaning spectrum. Sarkozy, however faces a tougher challenge as he considers whether to chase Le Pen's followers at the risk of alienating Bayrou's.
She added: "Sarkozy is in an impossible situation: he has to appeal both to the extreme right and to the center to win on May 6. An impossible task."