François Hollande has moved a step closer to becoming the first Socialist president of France in a generation by beating the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the first round of elections. But the surprisingly high vote for the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, boosted the overall figures for the right and meant that the final runoff vote on 6 May remains on a knife edge.
Partial results showed Hollande – a former Socialist party leader, rural MP and self-styled Mr Normal – with a clear lead at more than 28%, compared with Sarkozy on 27%. It is one of the left’s best ever results and will raise momentum for next month’s final runoff where only the two candidates will compete against each other. The Socialist party is seeking to return to the presidency for the first time since François Mitterrand’s re-election in 1988.
Sarkozy’s total will be seen as a personal failure. It is the first time an outgoing president has failed to win a first-round vote in the past 50 years and makes it harder for Sarkozy to regain momentum. The final vote between Hollande and Sarkozy now depends on a delicate balance of how France’s total of rightwing and leftwing voters line up.
Hollande told cheering supporters in his rural fiefdom of Corrèze in south-west France that he was best-placed to lead France towards change, saying the vote marked a “rejection” of Sarkozy and a “sanction” against his five years in office. He said France clearly wanted to “close one page and open another”. He reiterated his opposition to austerity alone as the only way out of Europe’s crisis: “My final duty, and I know I’m being watched from beyond our borders, is to put Europe back on the path of growth and employment.”
A key victory of the night was for the Front National’s Le Pen, who came third with around 18% of the vote, beating her father Jean-Marie’s record success in 2002, and placing herself firmly at the heart of rightwing politics in France. She said “the battle of France has just begun” and “nothing will be the same again”.
The lawyer and twice-divorced mother of three had presented herself as the modern face of her party, trying to strip it of unsavoury overtones after her father’s convictions for saying the Nazi occupation of France was not “particularly inhumane”.
She had initially stressed economic issues, calling for France to leave the euro, but in recent days returned to her hard-right stance on curbing immigration. At her final rally in Paris, supporters had shouted: “This is our home, our country!”
Sarkozy’s chances now hang on bringing over voters from Le Pen. However, not all her voters will automatically turn out for Sarkozy in the second round; there is a strong anti-establishment feeling among many.
Sarkozy gave a defiant speech, going on the offensive and betraying no hint of having been beaten. He styled the result as a “crisis” vote, by a French population which was “suffering”. In a clear overture to Le Pen’s voters, and the extreme-right motto of loving France, he said: “I call on all French people who put love of their country above partisan considerations, to unite and join me.” He vowed to tighten border controls, stop manufacturers from leaving France, make work pay and defend law and order.
The leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who had dominated headlines in recent weeks with rousing open-air rallies against capitalism, took about 11% and failed in his ultimate aim of beating Le Pen and wiping out the extreme right. Mélenchon said the result confirmed that he had been right to campaign ferociously to try to stop her rise.
Europe will be watching the final battle closely. A Hollande victory in the second round would be a turning point in European politics, a rare victory for the left in Europe, which has in recent years moved towards the right. It would also leave the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, looking more isolated in her insistence on rigid austerity measures as the way out of the euro crisis.
Hollande has campaigned on renegotiating the new European treaty to include provisions on jobs and growth to help lift the zone’s debt-ridden economies out of recession.
The economy could take centre stage in the final runoff as other countries watch to see if Sarkozy becomes the latest leader to be ousted since the start of the financial crisis in 2008.
Sarkozy, who is the most unpopular French president to run for re-election, was not attacked on his initial handling of the crisis but on his record in office, his personal bling-bling style, perceived favouritism for the rich, and policies seen as unjust.
Sarkozy had run a rightwing campaign from the outset, chasing voters on the extreme right by focusing on immigration, saying there were too many foreigners in France and following Le Pen’s lead in claiming unlabelled halal meat was a key concern of French voters. He had recently stressed conservative family values and the Christian heritage of France. His strategists will now have to decide whether he lurches even further to the right.
Some observers already claim his strategy had backfired, failed to boost him and only served to increase Le Pen’s final result, which was double that of her father in the last presidential election in 2007.
Hollande ran a very cautious campaign, refusing to be drawn into battles or surprise measures.
His stance as being against the world of finance and his proposal of a 75% tax on incomes over €1m (£817,000) was approved by a majority in polls. He was convinced that his more measured, if ploddingly serious, style would win out with an electorate tired of Sarkozy’s bling and frenetic policy initiatives.
Voter turnout was high, at 80%.
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