The socialist on the stump. (Jacky Naegelen / Courtesy Reuters)
Earlier this month, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the incumbent failed to take the lead in the first round of a French presidential election. Now, before the second round, scheduled for Sunday, surveys indicate that President Nicolas Sarkozy will be beaten handily by François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate. So handily, in fact, that the French press has already moved on to speculating about the legislative elections that will take place in June.
Chances are that the outcome in June will be determined by the same issues that dominated the first round of voting in the presidential election, which have dominated the second round as well. So it is telling that the far-right National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen, doubled its vote share in the first round compared with 2007. And much of the increase came from voters who had picked Sarkozy last time, according to estimates from exit polls. That arithmetic helped Hollande, a lower-profile figure who was a member of the group of Socialists nurtured by François Mitterrand during his long presidency, nose ahead in the race.
The National Front surge has effectively set the political agenda for the coming months, and the party will influence the priorities of whatever government comes next. Indeed, French populism is in vogue once again. Each of the four major candidates has run a nationalist campaign, although of slightly different varieties.
On the right, Nicolas Sarkozy has focused on immigration -- in particular, undocumented immigration, the vulnerability of French borders, and France's Muslim population. He has committed to "preserve our way of life," emphasizing the dangers of immigration. Le Pen has done the same, but with a greater emphasis on Euro-skepticism, more criticism of the euro, and a defense of the French welfare state.
On the left, the coalition led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon has given voice to concerns raised last winter by Occupy Wall Street
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