Gloomy economic forecasts abound in Paris. (DomiKetu / flickr)

Divining the result of French elections is a notoriously hazardous affair. No one in France forgets 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the right-wing National Front candidate, pulled off a surprise upset in the first round, knocking Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the running and securing a place in the runoff election against Jacques Chirac. 

A decade later, there are no fewer than ten candidates on the ballot for the first round of voting on April 22. Polls indicate that Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent president, and François Hollande, the Socialist Party challenger, are in a virtual tie at 28 and 27 percent of the vote, respectively. They alone will likely go on to the runoff election on May 6. Even so, voters will still signal strong support for a trio of second-tier candidates who have positioned themselves as more or less radical alternatives to the status quo. According to a new poll by Ifop-Fiducial, a major French polling outfit, 16 percent of voters say they will vote for Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in the first round, 11.5 percent for François Bayrou of the centrist Democratic Movement party, and 13.5 percent for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, whose support until recently hovered in the low single digits. 

These numbers reflect the unhappiness of the vast majority of French voters. France is reeling from Europe's widespread economic woes. In January, Standard and Poor's stripped the country of its AAA credit rating. France's national bureau of statistics projects no economic growth for the next 18 months. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expects unemployment, already at a 12-year high of 9.3 percent, to reach 10.7 percent by the end of the year. France's economic floundering has many citizens worried that their children will not have the same opportunities or the same high-quality social benefits as they did during the Trente Glorieuses, the three decades of postwar prosperity that provided the French with a comfortable standard of living and a strong social safety net. 

All this is bad news for Sarkozy. Although his approval rating rose slightly -- from 33 percent to 36 percent -- following the terrorist killings in Toulouse and Montauban in mid-March, there is no indication that the boost will be enough to win him the election. Sarkozy may well post the highest numbers on April 22, but in the May 6 runoff Hollande is projected to beat him handily -- by as many as eight points, estimates currently suggest. 

However, the bump in Sarkozy's approval rating following the siege in Toulouse and Montauban highlights the fact that France's dire economic outlook is only one dimension in the deeper national angst that undergirds this election. That a French-born son of Algerian immigrants would turn his anger and frustration so spectacularly on innocent victims was a vivid reminder of how frayed the social fabric in France has become. The questions of who the French are, and the extent to which their republic can absorb and integrate immigrants, now haunts this election. As does the recent closing of hundreds of factories across the country that once provided high-paying manufacturing jobs. According to a report published by the newspaper Les Echos in December 2011, 880 factories shut their doors in France between 2008 and 2011, throwing 100,000 people out of work and contributing to a growing sense that France is less and less able to manage the forces of globalization. 

Across the political spectrum, parties agree that the French social fabric has frayed along class, ethnic, and religious lines -- a direct affront to the country's revolutionary ideal of a republic constituted by equal citizens. Where they differ is how to deal with this crisis. The response from the Sarkozy government has been to demand a "zero tolerance" policy toward the wayward children of immigrants, meaning those angry, unemployed young men of North African and African origin in the notorious banlieues, the neglected suburbs of France's museum-quality city centers. Knowing he must get a portion of the far-right vote in order to win reelection, Sarkozy has shamelessly pandered to the National Front's portrayal of France's borders as leaking sieves through which dangerous aliens who threaten the very existence of the republic flow. His law-and-order rhetoric has been matched with increased citizen surveillance and a reorganized police directly accountable to the Élysée. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, Sarkozy announced that he would ban from French soil certain radical imams planning to attend an Islamic conference.

The French left -- from the mainstream Socialist Party to the far-left coalition Parti de Gauche -- accuse Sarkozy of indulging in xenophobia, creating a climate of fear, increasing the power of the state at the cost of individual liberties, and dismantling the very social programs and services that would help the marginalized become fully participatory members of French society. Hollande has published a 60-point list of things he would do to reverse these trends if elected. It includes investing in creating new jobs, hiring 60,000 new teachers, improving access to health care, and developing a rational immigration policy that would be tough on illegal immigrants but deal with legal immigration requests on a "case-by-case" basis.  

The first round of voting in France is very much a vote-your-gut event. On April 22, those voting for one of the minor candidates know full well that their man or woman has pretty much zero chance of making it to the second round. Nevertheless, citizens frustrated with the status quo will not miss the opportunity to cast a vote in favor of the candidate whose platform speaks to their greatest hopes and fears. They also know that they will be sending a message to the leading candidates that their concerns must be taken seriously. Sarkozy and Hollande will have to secure their votes in the runoff to win the election. 

Whoever wins on May 6 will be tasked with trying to turn around a lesser France. The new president will have to make tough choices and impose adjustments that will displease key constituencies: For Hollande, those will include newly regulated bankers; for Sarkozy, the struggling working-class citizens who can no longer count on the state to provide them with the assistance on which they once could depend. Hollande's consistent lead and the dramatic rise of the left coalition in recent weeks indicate that most French citizens are fed up with what they perceive as the Sarkozy government's politics of division.

The discontent of this election demonstrates that, whatever their political views, the French long for a united republic, one that is able to provide a decent life for all its citizens. They want a leader who can confidently take their country forward in a world in which its standing feels shaky. If that does not happen, the next French election five years from now could see even more voters move toward the right and left fringes than this round, and a nation more divided than ever.