On Sunday, May 6, voters in France voted in the run-off presidential election. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande campaigned furiously, but experts say the latter looks like a good bet to win.
Polls put socialist Francois Hollande around seven percentage points ahead of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy who faces a difficult, and perhaps impossible, task to close that gap.
In order to win a majority of the popular vote, Sarkozy will have to attract support from those who cast their ballots for the far-right Front National in the first round of the election on April 22. The party, led by Marine Le Pen, took 18 percent of that vote.
The Front National is looking forward to parliamentary elections in June and is in no mind to do the incumbent any favors. On Tuesday, Le Pen, the daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, encouraged her supporters to cast blank ballots as a form of protest.
The far right in France has eaten into Sarkozy's support to a much greater extent than the far left has hurt Hollande. And that, say experts, comes despite the fact that only The Front National's rhetoric has changed, not its xenophobic outlook.
"The vocabulary has changed, but the basic goals remain the same," Etienne Francois, Professor Emeritus at the France Center of the Free University of Berlin, told DW. "Nontheless, the change in the choice of words has made the party seem increasingly normal."
Tight rope walk
Sarkozy probably needs to win over around two-thirds of the Front National voters to prevail in the run-off. And while he has ruled out cooperating with Le Pen's party, he has been appropriating some of the issues and the vocabulary associated with the far right.
The incumbent has promised to tighten France's immigration policies and threatened to pull out of the Schengen agreement, if controls between EU member states are not stepped up.
"Our system of integration doesn't work," Sarkozy said on French radio on Tuesday. "Before we were able to integrate those who were received on our territory, others arrived. Having taken in too many people, we paralyzed our system of integration."
Experts say statements like these are aimed at exploiting deep-seated fears within the French electorate.
"Many French people are afraid of globalization and open borders," Claire Demesmay, Director of the French program at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told DW.
Sarkozy is trying to score points on the immigration issue
The problem for Sarkozy, Demesmay added, is that he is also trying to appeal to the supporters of the moderate politician François Bayrou, who won 9.1 percent in the first round of presidential voting in April.
"These are people who are interested in larger European questions and favor more immigration," Demesmay said. "Sarkozy has to square the circle."
Sarkozy's conservative UMP has offered to work together with Bayrou, and in late April Sarkozy came out in favor of a Europe-wide stimulus package.
But the divergent nature of his campaign statements has led some to say the French President is flip-flopping. The leftist newspaper Libération has even accused Sarkozy of "a complete lack of ideological orientation."
Hollande as new broom?
In his late campaigning Hollande has been stressing economic topics, in particular sluggish EU growth and the debt crisis of some EU member states.
"What's important for Hollande are policies to bring debt under control as well as joint efforts by EU member states on economic questions," Jacques-Pierre Gougeon - a Socialist Party advisor and the director of the Institute of International Relations and Strategies in Paris - told DW.
Gougeon added that debt reduction would not be enough, saying "Europe also has to have measures for growth, employment and innovation - that's lacking right now."
But some experts believe that even if elected, Hollande will be unable to put promises of a new approach to the debt crisis into practice.
"[German Chancellor] Angela Merkel won't accept that, and she's not the only one" Demesmay said. "Lots of countries are against new negotiations."
And Hollande's hand could be weakened by increasing international skepticism about France's own economic future, which could lead to a downward revision in estimations of the country's credit-worthiness.
"The ratings agencies are lying in wait, and France's Triple-A status is at stake," Isabelle Bourgeois, an economics expert at the CIRAC Institute at the University of Cergy-Pontoise told DW.
Whatever the outcome of Sunday's run-off election, it's clear that the French political landscape is shifting.
"If Sarkozy loses the election, the parliamentary elections that immediately follow will probably yield lots of seats for the Front National and could lead to a tacit arrangement between mainstram conservatives at the far right," Etienne Francois said. "And a strong Front National in the French parliament isn't going to make things any easier."
Author: Daphne Grathwohl / jc
Editor: Neil King