Leader of the National Front Party, Marine Le Pen. (Pascal Rossignol / Courtesy Reuters)
An April 23rd, 2012 update to the original article: Over the weekend, the French electorate voted to send socialist presidential candidate François Hollande and conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy to a runoff election, which will take place on May 6. Voters turned out in droves -- an estimated 80 percent of all those eligible cast a ballot. Still, their overall message is murky.
To be sure, Sarkozy's 27 percent (behind Hollande's leading 29 percent) can be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the sitting president. That outcome was generally expected -- first, because Sarkozy's personal behavior and demeanor had started to rub the French the wrong way, and second, because it is not easy to be an incumbent in a time of economic crisis. But less apparent is what the far right National Front's 18 percent of the vote signals. Or the Left Front's 11 percent. Indeed, tallying up the votes on the left and right misses the point.
The real divide in this round was not between the left and right but between openness and closure. Sarkozy, Hollande, and François Bayrou (the centrist candidate who received nine percent of the vote) all adhere to the idea that France benefits from globalization -- even if they don't say so -- and are supportive of continuing the adventure of European integration. But the National Front's Marine Le Pen and, to a lesser extent, the Left Front's Jean-Luc Mélenchon represent "la France du non," those voters who turned down the European constitution in 2005 and believe that the key to a better future is reasserting sovereignty. These voters feel that they have lost their country. For them, France has been taken over by immigrants at home, by Eurocrats in Brussels, by technocrats in the international institutions, and by financiers in the global markets. They would like to send a loud message against the status quo.