As expected, French socialist Francois Hollande has won the first round of the presidential poll. But populist extremist parties have also brought in record results.
The first signs of Francois Hollande's victory came from France's overseas territories where already around noon the first results came out. Voters in Martinique and Guadeloupe confirmed what had been widely expected: Socialist Francois Hollande is the clear favorite for winning the French presidency and taking over from Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace.
Hollande almost through
Hollande got around 29 percent in the first round of voting and thus came ahead of Sarkozy, who merely mustered 26 percent. The incumbent, though, can claim a somewhat less flattering win - according to an opinion poll he is the least popular president of France's recent history.
"It really would take a lot to give Sarkozy another chance to win re-election after all," Henrik Uterwedde of the Franco-German Institute think tank told DW. He's sure that unless there's a major blunder by Hollande, he'll win the presidency in the runoff vote on May 6. "It would be incredibly difficult for Sarkozy to catch up. I see Hollande as the clear favorite."
A vote against Sarkozy
Hollande's biggest selling point in the election campaign was not being Sarkozy. Essentially, the French have voted the incumbent out of office, Uterwedde said. "Sarkozy is a president who was really unpopular towards the end of his term. He failed to fulfill many of the promises he'd made to make it into office five years ago."
France indeed is faced with tough challenges at the end of Sarkozy's term. Unemployment stands at a 20-year record of 10 percent, public debt is getting out of hand and the trade deficit is massive. The next five-year term is likely to be difficult and many French voters do not necessarily trust Hollande to do that much of a better job. "The result does not suggest a glowing pro-Hollande sentiment either."
Supporters of Sarkozy have not given up, though. They put their faith in his fighting abilities and on the upcoming TV debate between him and his challenger Hollande. Five years ago, Sarkozy clearly dominated the TV debate. But back then, he was up against Segolene Royal. The only real weakness Sarkozy could try to capitalize on this time is the fact that Hollande has little experience. While he headed the Socialist party for 10 years, he never held office as a member of a government.
Surprising result for Le Pen
Hollande winning the first round had been expected - the success of the far-right Front National, though, came as a surprise. It's the first time that Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, ran for presidency. And with almost 18 percent, she secured the highest percentage of the vote in the party's history. "This is more than a footnote - this shows that right-wing sentiment is widespread," said Uterwedde. At the same time it shows that Sarkozy's campaign strategy of trying to woo right-wing voters away from Le Pen did not work. "All it did was that it made the right-wing agenda of Le Pen more acceptable to voters. All parties now will have to put a lot of effort into figuring out how to handle that part of the electorate. Those are not all extremists but also a lot of people who are suffering from the crisis."
Similar to the gains on the extreme right, the extreme left also managed to do surprisingly well. Around 12 percent cast their ballot for Jean-Luc Melenchon of the communist-backed Left Front alliance. Melenchon's campaign was a mix of being anti-EU and promising an increase in social spending. All in all, a rough one-third of the voters have backed extremist parties. Uterwedde expects this to have consequences for France's foreign policy – any future president will have to take those people into account. "Germany better be prepared for a somewhat uneasy relationship with the next French president. But then again, also Sarkozy was not an easy person to work with."
In Germany, the French elections are likely to spur a new discussion about the French take on government and economy: growth stimulus programs rather than cutting spending. The European Central Bank's independence will also move back into the focus of the debate. "France never has been an easy partner," says Uterwedde. "And after this election it will be less so than ever before."
Author: Andreas Noll / ai
Editor: Spencer Kimball