I’m still in northern France. Today, French voters particiapted in record high numbers in the first round of the presidential elections. The Gaullist Party’s Nicolas Sarkozy got around 30% and the Socialists’ Segolene Royal got 25.2%. The voters also delivered a sharp rebuff to the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, giving him only 11.5%.

That means that Sarko and Sego will go to the second round run-off on May 6. Five years ago, Le Pen shocked much of the French intelligentsia by beating the Socialist candidate (Lionel Jospin) into second place, and thus got into the run-off ballot against Chirac a couple of weeks later.

Lille is in a traditionally leftwing part of the country; and many leftists here were shocked in 2002 that even this district had put Le Pen top of the ballot. This time, in the “département” of which Lille is a part, Le Pen got some 14.7%, Sarko got 29.7%, and Sego got 23.0%.

There were twelve candidates on yesterday’s ballot. Apart from those three, the other “big” one was the centrist Francois Bayrou, who got 18.3% of the national vote.

In the run-off, the outcome will depend to some extent which way Bayrou’s supporters will turn. The other eight candidates are nearly all from the left. On the French TF-1 television this evening, I saw a Communist Party Senator saying clearly that their party will call for its supporters to come behind Segolene; and I imagine most other leftists will do that. Many of Le Pen’s people can be expected to support Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has made quite a break with some of the stiff nationalism the Gaullists have traditionally held to; and he’s been seen as far more pro-US than most Gaullists have been in the part. To a certain extent he’s had to run away from his pro-US sentiments during the election so far. But he is definitely seen as eager to start dismantling some key aspects of the French “social contract” and shifting the country to what is described here as “the Anglo-Saxon model” of social-service dismantlement.

In the last few days of the campaign, Sarko also started talking quite openly about the importance of his Christian beliefs and the fact that France should be less militantly secularist than it has been for the past 125 years.

Is this a “George Allen” dodge? Like Allen, Sarko is someone with immigrant (and Jewish) heritage who may perhaps be waving all this Christian business around in order to assuage suspicions he might be too “Jewish” for some of the Gaullist base?

If Sarko needs some pork chitlins to start handing out on campaign stops I’m sure George A. would be happy to send some along. Heck, the guy is even without a job. Maybe he could bring ’em over to France for you himself?

Yesterday I was riding Lille’s fabulous metro system, which extends around 20 miles or so north to some other old industrial towns with long leftwing traditions. We went to the former municipal swimming baths in Roubaix, which has been turned into a really beautiful art museum. (“La Piscine.”) But they’ve kept in place many of the finely wrought art deco furnishings of the public baths: a monument to the longheld ideals of the common good…

On the way there I overheard some Afro-French women seated in front of me talking about whether they would bother to go and vote. From the way they were talking, it seemed the main issue for them was whether they would go to vote against Sarko, rather than voting for Sego or anyone else. I gather that’s been quite a common phenomenon.

Anyway, the next round will be a hard fight. Sego hasn’t really projected herself yet as having distinctive ideas. But she’s run a competent campaign. And at least the outcome so far indicates that (1) the left is not dead in France, as was feared immediately after 2002, and (2) Le Pen-ism can be countered and put back in its box.