Hollande on track

Francois Hollande is taking a first-round lead into the May 6 run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy

Are the French Socialists headed for a victory lap around the Arc du Triomphe next month? Going by the first-round presidential election results, it may seem that way. Should Francois Hollande win the next battle – this time a simple one-on-one with the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy – then the mainstream leftish party would have a man back in the Republic’s hot-seat for the first time since 1988.

There were ten candidates standing in the preliminary showdown and Mr Hollande came out on top, landing 29% of the votes to the conservative president’s 27%. In a strong third place was the National Front (NF) belle, Marine Le Pen, who outscored her father’s placing in 2002 to gather 18% of the ballots cast. There was also a substantial turnout for the far-left candidate; Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the Left Front, polled 11%.

However, it is no surprise that Francois Hollande has recently being trying to reach out to those French who marked their sheets in favour of Le Pen because some simple maths shows that Nicolas Sarkozy is certainly far from dead and buried in the race for the Elysee Palace. If you were to add Hollande’s first-round score to that of his similar-minded friend way out on the left, you reach 40%. But Sarkozy slots back into the lead with 45% if you combine his and Marine Le Pen’s votes. Those deals are not assured and Sarkozy has ruled out an official accord with the NF. However, the president has also called for their unofficial support and pleaded with the electorate not ‘to demonise’ them.

There has been a very odd feel to this election.  There is anxiety over the economy – the eurozone crisis has hit France hard and its repercussions continue. There was uncertainty and scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s possible candidacy for the Socialist Party. In fact, Francois Hollande himself has been labelled ‘Mr Bland’ and ‘Mr Boring’ in the press. There has been great debate over each other’s policies, from the incumbent’s clampdown on immigrants to far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon’s proposal for 100% income tax on those people earning more than €300,000. Nicolas Sarkozy himself has been accused of being un-Gallic on a personal level with his teetotal and fitness-related rejection of vins et fromages.

Finally, there were the events in and around Toulouse last month. Mohamed Merah shot dead one soldier on 11 March, two more forces personnel four days later and finally three children and a rabbi at their school on 19 March. The country was stunned by the events. Campaigning was put on hold but it has been hard to see if the utter condemnation of the shootings by the nation and the controversial handling of the affair by the Interior Ministry has had any political effect.

In the account below, Richard Faul, a British translator working in Toulouse, describes the feeling after the initial shootings, before the gunman was identified and killed:

“I think everyone has been in total disbelief, saying it doesn’t happen in France, it’s far more common in USA or England. Toulouse is generally one of the most open and friendly cities in France where strangers talk to each other all the time and it’s easy to meet people. So it’s a shock. Everyone I know has gone about their daily stuff but they are all aware of it and have one eye on the news.

I was slightly annoyed that all the electoral candidates came riding in like the cavalry, obviously looking at how to turn it to their advantage, but then on the other hand if they don’t they would be seen to be absent in a time of crisis. The carnaval has been postponed, it’s not a time for partying just yet.”

It seems unlikely that Merah was trying to influence the outcome of the election with his murderous actions. But the deaths opened France up to questions from within about each other, about political process and policy, about foreign wars and domestic attitudes, about radicalisation, about ‘home-grown terror’, about global problems on a national level. It has been just one of the hurdles that this year’s candidates have had to deal with. Mr Hollande says he is “best-placed to become next president” and, according to the opinion polls, that may be so. But there is a lot playing on citizens’ minds at the moment and it cannot be denied that this time around, party politics are taking a back seat and it is a pure test of character that is on the cards.

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