French voters will have to decide between Sarkozy and Hollande in a run-off election. But it's the strong results of the extreme right and left that is more telling about the country's problems, says DW's Andreas Noll.
Let's take the good news first: France's democracy is alive and well. After a boring campaign, several polling agencies had predicted many people would simply stay home on election day, but voters flooded to polling places. The message they sent to politicians is, however, less surprising: two weeks from now incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy and socialist challenger Francois Hollande will be the only names on the runoff ballot to see who serves as French president for the next five years. Short of a political miracle, that man will be Francois Hollande.
An anti-Sarko feeling
The first round of voting in the presidential election was, above all, a voting out of the governing president. Sarkozy had falsely calculated that a desperate and risky campaign would see him scamper through the first round of voting with a lead, giving him momentum for the final two weeks of campaigning.
Andreas Noll says many French voters turned their backs on reality
There were two reasons his dreams didn't come true. The most important of which was that the French are sick of Nicolas Sarkozy and obviously want to give a chance to his opposite: the calm and calculated Francois Hollande. Sarkozy's mercurial personality, his need for recognition and his frequent unpresidential manner have all led people in his own camp to turn away from him. His polarizing personality has become a burden that could only be lifted by a positive economic situation. But on election day, France suffers from its highest unemployment in 30 years, a dangerously high national debt, a record trade deficit and an overall economic decline.
Poor presidential balance sheet
Whether another politician would have done a considerably better job guiding France through storms of financial and economic crisis is unlikely - but also beside the point. Sarkozy raised the public's expectations when he won the 2007 election by promising a series of reforms that would separate France from its past. He kept some of the promises, but at the end of his term he will still handover a country that has seen its competitiveness continually decline. It is understandable that Sarkozy pays the bills for this since he himself has never let there be a doubt that he does not see his role as weighing parties' arguments but in designing policy. There was no problem the president wouldn't deal with himself, often turning his prime ministers into extras left to wait in the wings.
France's desolate situation can be put on his tab, and the French did not seem willing to give him credit for the mitigating circumstances of the financial crisis or any of his success in foreign policy and managing the euro crisis.
A long-feared campaigning machine, Sarkozy spent overwhelming amounts of energy fighting to turn around the public's negative view of his time in office, but voters clearly saw little more than a groggy boxer trying to fight his way out of a corner. The final weeks of the campaign proved to be even more erratic than his term in office with the president railing against immigrants and making use of France's widespread euro-skepticism.
Economic, social misery helps populists
But it wasn't just the president who was lashing out in all directions over the last few weeks. It seems the people have reacted equally irrational in their Sunday vote. As a reaction to what they see as failed reforms, the French also decided to turn their backs on reality. Five years ago it was the cautious and pro-EU candidate Francois Bayrou who came in third – this time however it was reactionaries who took third and fourth in the poll. A scandalous 20 percent voted for the right-wing Marine Le Pen and her Front National party, some 9 percent voted for yet another populist: Jean-Luc Melenchon of the communist-backed Left Front coalition.
Both of those two seek to blame the country's problems for troubles abroad: their programs offer leaving NATO or the eurozone, quitting the Schengen agreement or blocking foreign competition. Those are shockingly cheap recipes rooted in old ideological stereotypes. But one-third of the electorate fell for those recipes – especially young voters who see themselves as the losers of globalization. Those voters cling to an idea of France that has nothing in common with reality anymore. They believe – or hope – that France could simply cut ties with Europe and the rest of the world and be happy on an isolated island.
This promise of the government being able to simply fix everything has never been fulfilled in the past but still holds a lot of appeal. Young Frenchmen don't dream of a career in business but rather in administration. That's not exactly what you'd call ambition or eagerness to take on challenges.
TV debate is Sarkozy's last chance
Both Hollande and Sarkozy will have to take all of this into account in their campaigning for the runoff vote in May. Incumbent Sarkozy will pin his hopes on the TV debate with his challenger to make the impossible possible and turn his fortunes around. But one thing is clear after Sunday's first round of voting: French people will not get the answer to their concern of what will happen once the house of cards that the politicians present them with has collapsed – and it will collapse in the course of this year already, because there simply isn't enough money to keep up that dream of a state who takes care of everyone and everything.
Regardless of who will win the election, the new president will have to implement the painful measures that they chose not to highlight in their election programs: he will have to radically cut spending and stop further inflating administration. So far the electorate does not seem willing to face those facts and the pressing need for structural reform.
Author: Andreas Noll / ai
Editor: Spencer Kimball