After weeks of uncertainty and anxiety, the French have voted pretty much the way the polls suggested they would in this first round of presidential balloting. A record 84 percent turnout put conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy in the lead at 31 percent, the Socialist Ségolène Royal at 26 percent and the center-right François Bayrou at a respectable 19 percent. The only surprise was the far-right neo-Fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote, which at 10 percent was a million votes below expectations and his worst polling in three decades. Sarkozy’s attempt to steal Le Pen’s votes apparently succeeded. Presumably those who did vote for Le Pen were less worried about the second round (the two top vote-getters will compete in a runoff May 6), as were the 10 percent who voted for one of the candidates to Ségo’s left. The second round would rally behind her those who cried “T-S-S!” (Tout Sauf Sarkozy, or “Anyone But Sarkozy”). Indeed, many voted for Bayrou because polls suggested he might defeat Sarkozy.

In the long and difficult campaign, one thing was painfully clear. Le Pen with his nationalist and xenophobic slogans succeeded in moving everyone to the right. As in the US elections before the Iraq War, everyone made concessions to the more conservative candidate. Sarko, already known for his anti-immigrant excesses, famously calling the inhabitants of France’s ghettos “scum” during the rioting a year and a half ago, went even further in aping Le Pen’s rhetoric. With every passing day Sarko, a clever and able politician, would invoke France’s Catholic tradition, the mantle of de Gaulle, the need to crack down on illegal immigrants. (As Interior Minister he had already sent the cops into schools to ferret out children of undocumented immigrants, reminiscent of the collaborationist Vichy government’s deportation of more than 11,000 Jewish schoolchildren during World War II.) Forgotten were his progressive proposals that France begin to consider affirmative action. Sarko’s image as an angry and dangerous man was constantly reinforced.

Le Pen, who rightly boasted that everyone was trying to steal his thunder, became even more outrageous, calling Sarko an immigrant, pointing to his Hungarian, Greek (and Jewish) grandparents and stating that Sarko had only one French-born ancestor–again, a fallback to the criteria used by Vichy to determine who was Jewish and therefore not truly French.

Faced with all this, rather than move to the left, where she felt support for her was assured, Ségo joined the nationalist and conservative clamor. Having initially voiced her admiration for the New Labour politics of Tony Blair, she began to defend the flag, arguing that each French home should display one, and played “La Marseillaise” rather than the traditional Socialist “Internationale” at each of her tricolor rallies. Her campaign seemed carefully based on Hillary Clinton’s, following the latter’s caution and conservatism. Ségo’s social proposals evoked her past as a military daughter, as when she argued that delinquent teenagers, understood to be largely of immigrant stock, should be retrained by the army. Her most daring economic promise, raising the minimum monthly wage by 250 euros over five years, would not even keep up with inflation, as was pointed out by her young Trotskyist opponent, Olivier Besancenot, whose postman’s salary was not much higher and who polled an impressive 4 percent in the first round, more than twice that of the ever-declining Communists.

Surprisingly, the centrist Bayrou sometimes found himself on Ségo’s left. Claiming that he alone could unite all Frenchmen, this longtime conservative politician successfully reinvented himself as the mainstream alternative. His detailed platform, full of reasonable centrist solutions, occasionally raised issues assiduously avoided by the others, such as arguing that France’s media should not be controlled by conglomerates whose major customer is the government and who are deeply tied to the arms industry.

What is astonishing about the right-wing thrust of these candidates is that most French voters expressed very little interest in the issues that preoccupied the major candidates. A February Eurobarometer poll published in Le Monde showed that a mere 7 percent were concerned about immigration and 11 percent about crime. The issues that troubled people the most were unemployment (53 percent), retirement (36 percent), the environment (35 percent) and the cost of living (30 percent). Voters were worried about globalization and the loss of jobs to lower-paid workers in Eastern Europe and Asia. At least four minor candidates reflected anxiety over the massive decline of independent farmers, the most famous being radical global-justice hero José Bové.

Le Pen’s solution to the unemployment problem was straightforward: Give priority to the French, close the borders and deport as many foreigners as possible. With a lack of concrete proposals from the left, many disgruntled workers–some of them former Communists–have been attracted to his cause; indeed, his turnout has often been highest in areas that were once CP strongholds. Rumors circulated that he might lure enough of these to finish second in the first round, as he did in 2002, when he shocked the nation by outpolling Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. Sarkozy assumed that following the “Anglo-Saxon” model of neoliberal economic restructuring would suffice, never discussing the problems that have remained unsolved in Britain and the United States (such as the little-publicized figure that there are at least as many jobless in New York City–40 percent of black men–as in the infamous Paris ghettos).

The first-round results suggest that the second will be a more traditional contest between the neoliberal right and the conservative left. As soon as the results were in, Sarkozy gave a speech in which he reverted to the “nice” Sarko, proclaiming his concern for the poor and unemployed–whose numbers would doubtless increase if his economic policies were implemented. Ségo continued as before, hoping that in addition to the 10 percent who voted to the left of her, she might woo enough Bayrou voters, frightened by Sarko’s divisiveness, to eke out a victory.

Sarkozy now invokes “values” and appeals to the silent majority, tipping his chapeau to Reagan and Republican strategists and trying to convince centrist voters that his would be a compassionate, not totally Thatcherite, conservatism. Royal seems satisfied that her vague and centrist strategy is working, but the latest polls show Sarko ahead in the second round. It will be a very tight race.