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.