After Historic First-Round Defeat, Sarkozy’s Re-election Hopes Shrink Further

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France's incumbent President and Union for a Popular Movement candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes a speech after the first round of the presidential election at Maison de la Mutualite in Paris on April 22, 2012

French voters took a step toward historic change on Sunday when they handed Socialist Party candidate François Hollande a victory in the first round of the presidential election with 28.8% of the vote, just edging second-place incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s 27%. Extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen finished third with a surprisingly high 18% of the vote, followed by hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon with 11.1% and centrist François Bayrou with 9.1%. The result sets up a May 6 runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy that polls predict the Socialist could win by double digits.

But while many experts expect the runoff to be tighter than that, the outcome of Sunday’s first round offered Sarkozy little reason for optimism. It was the first time since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958 that an incumbent has failed to win the first round. Even France’s last one-term President, centrist Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, prevailed in first-round voting in 1981 over Socialist rival François Mitterrand, before losing to the leftist in the final round. It also means that to have any hope of winning the election, Sarkozy will need the support of nearly all extreme-right National Front (FN) voters — a backing that party officials don’t appear ready to extend to their conservative foe.

“I think Sarkozy is finished,” FN founder and honorary president Jean-Marie Le Pen told France 2 TV on Sunday, hailing his daughter’s first-round score, which surpassed his own 16.7% tally that qualified him for the runoff in 2002. “Neither one nor the other candidate defend the main ideas in our program,” echoed FN vice president Louis Aliot on France Info radio on Monday, when asked whether the party would back Hollande or Sarkozy in the second round. “At this point, [we would support] neither of them.” Polls taken after the initial results were revealed on Sunday indicated that about 60% of FN voters say they’ll back Sarkozy on May 6, compared with about 20% for Hollande, with the remainder favoring abstention. Marine Le Pen has said she’ll indicate which candidate — if either — she’ll call on supporters to back on May 1.

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While much postelection reaction in France focused on Marine Le Pen’s surprising showing, many observers said Sarkozy’s second-place finish represented a resounding voter rebuke of both his policies and leadership style. Sarkozy has been criticized by opponents and even some allies for his sometimes brutal manner of pushing through decisions. When the results of these choices have proven counterproductive, Sarkozy has often changed course or backtracked — a habit that has generated complaints of short-sightedness and incoherence. Meanwhile, by concentrating virtually all decisionmaking power within the Elysée, he has denied himself the presidential comfort of blaming the government for policy failures. This has left Sarkozy alone in the crosshairs of French voters who are weary of the sluggish economy, rising unemployment and harsh austerity measures to a debt crisis many critics say the President created himself during his five-year tenure.

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“I can’t say I’m really excited about Hollande, but I voted for him in part to get rid of Sarkozy, which has now become urgent,” said a 32-year-old schoolteacher named Mathieu, who didn’t want to provide his last name after disclosing his voting choice upon exiting a central Paris polling station on Sunday. “I’d have voted for the left anyway, probably, but this is less about the programs and more about the candidates. I’m O.K. with the idea of a Hollande presidency. I’m not at all O.K. with Sarkozy in office anymore.”

Whether voters are actively or passively supporting the Socialist, this sentiment seems to be shaping projections for second-round voting. Polls taken on Sunday night find Hollande winning the May 6 contest with 53% to 56% of the vote. Most analysts expect the final margin to be far slimmer as the initial field of 10 candidates slims down to what could be a contentious clash between the two finalists. “The crucial moment has come,” Sarkozy told supporters on Sunday of the looming runoff. “The confrontation of projects, the choice of personalities.”

It’s a confrontation the incumbent clearly relishes — especially given his reputation as a peerless campaign pugilist. On Sunday night, Sarkozy challenged Hollande to three debates over the next two weeks of campaigning — the kind of verbal sparring the sharp-tongued, aggressive President excels in. Hollande quickly rejected the proposal, saying tradition has always limited candidates to a single debate. Hollande’s reaction suggests he will probably continue his previous strategy of brushing off attacks from Sarkozy’s camp and depicting himself as the unifying, calm choice in the race. “I am the candidate of assembly and change,” Hollande told supporters on Sunday. “Tonight, French voters have made me the candidate of all the forces that want to close one page and open another, upon which all of France’s strengths will be mobilized.”

(MORE: TIME Interviews French Presidential Front Runner François Hollande)

In the end, the race will likely hinge on how many supporters of other first-round contenders Sarkozy can win over in the runoff. Polls show that almost all voters supporting leftist candidates in the first round will switch to Hollande in the final round. In addition, the turnout of over 80% on Sunday means there are few undecided voters to try to sway. For Sarkozy, the challenge now is to overcome the evident hostility he faces from FN party leaders and woo the party’s rank-and-file supporters to his side, which was one of the keys to his 2007 election victory.

Yet many analysts say Sarkozy’s turn to the hard right in his re-election campaign has thus far failed to win over FN backers, instead helping Le Pen’s rise. And the wooing of what many people consider to be xenophobic, Muslim-baiting, anti-European voters has caused many of his mainstream supporters to flee in revolt. Indeed, in order to win the runoff, Sarkozy must lure not only extreme-right voters but also Bayrou’s centrist supporters, who are repelled by the President’s appeals to Le Pen’s flock. On Sunday night, however, Sarkozy made it clear which side he’s leaning toward. “The French people have registered a crisis vote, reflecting their worries and suffering over the new world now being drawn,” he said. “I know these worries, this suffering, and I understand them. They’re about the respect of our borders … the control of immigration, the value of work, and about the safety [of people] and their families.”

Those words and similar declarations by other conservative leaders on Sunday indicate that Sarkozy is continuing to place his re-election hopes on winning over a sufficiently large chunk of FN voters to carry the second round. He may succeed — but it could also backfire. “I think Sarkozy will lead a campaign into the second round playing to his right, and in doing so lose the center,” says political analyst Stéphane Rozès. “Up to now, that hasn’t worked at all as he’d planned.”

Nothing in the first round worked out for Sarkozy as planned. His incredible campaigning skills aside, the odds are long that his fortunes will reverse themselves for the May 6 runoff as well.

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