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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 in the United States and the indignados in Spain. Meanwhile, Hollande has steered clear of Mélenchon's more radical redistributive proposals, but has pledged to roll back some of Sarkozy's pension reforms and to increase taxes on the rich. He has also criticized the EU fiscal pact and its commitment to austerity.
Still, after the first round of voting, barely a quarter of voters surveyed cited "the issues" as the reason they made their choice. Among the leading candidates, issues voters only made up a majority of the 11 percent of the electorate that voted for Mélenchon. Issues were of secondary importance for those who voted Le Pen, as they were for those voting Hollande and Sarkozy. A quarter of those who picked Sarkozy said that their reason was "commitment to the candidate." (Only seven percent of those who backed Holland and Le Pen cited that as their motivation.) And one out of three Hollande voters cited "party commitment" as an important reason for choosing their candidate.
It was "opposition to other candidates" that served as the motivation for the plurality (44 percent) of Le Pen voters and formed a substantial part of the electorate for each of the other three major candidates. Going into the second round of voting this weekend and the June polls, it is reasonable to assume that this kind of vote is the most difficult to transfer to other candidates, since it is based on personal, as opposed to programmatic, opposition. Surveys indicate that barely half of the Le Pen vote will go to Sarkozy in the second round, and that a little more than a quarter will go to Hollande. Over 90 percent of the Mélenchon voters indicate that they will vote Hollande next Sunday. Of course, the preferences the voters expressed in the first round will reemerge in the legislative elections in June, and the candidates know that.
This means a populist turn for France. Such a shift will pose challenges for both the country and for Europe. For France, the challenge will come a month from now, with the legislative elections. The results of the first round of the presidential elections confirmed a trend that first emerged in 1997. The National Front's vote share is spreading from a few urban areas to small metropolitan and rural areas. In 2002, the National Front presidential candidate received more than 20 percent of the vote in 25 of the 101 French departments. This year, it won more than 20 percent in 43 of the departments.
If support for Le Pen's party holds constant between now and June, the National Front will move to the second round of legislative balloting in 353 of the 577 National Assembly electoral districts. In other words, it will be a true national party. It will then be in a position similar to that of the French Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s and will try to push the governing coalition's policy orientation much further to the populist right.
French populism will be daunting for Europe as well. Sarkozy has already reacted to the National Front surge by emphasizing law and border issues in an attempt to pick off votes. He has talked about putting greater pressure on Italy and Spain to harden their sections of the Schengen border, as well as a more muscular action at the EU level if they do not. He has also supported more aggressive European economic stimulus, as well as a financial transaction tax, a clear challenge to German priorities. But since Sarkozy was responsible for negotiating the fiscal austerity pact with Germany last March, he has been more reluctant to criticize it.
Hollande, who was outside those negotiations, has been able to promise more wide-reaching changes to the EU's austerity pact. In a press conference on April 25, he proposed several modifications, including creating eurobonds to pay for infrastructure projects; instituting a financial transaction tax to raise money; and allowing the use of the European Investment Bank to finance greater job creation. Unlike other leaders of the French left, Hollande has been a strong backer of European unification. Thus, he has also made clear that he does not seek advantage at the expense of the European project, but rather seeks to find solutions for growth within Europe.
Hollande's promises play well at home. Since the end of the first round of voting, he has been focusing on "raising hope" through economic growth to combat the influence of the National Front among working-class voters (the party got about a third of the blue-collar vote). And he will probably win. It will be up to him to negotiate these policies with the National Front and Sarkozy's party on the right.
But Hollande's proposals place him squarely in conflict with German priorities. The German government's supporters are very much in favor of the austerity positions taken by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Because elections are scheduled for 2013, there is little room for them to compromise on changes in the fiscal pact.
Nevertheless, France's new president will gain support in the rest of Europe, which is moving in a very different direction. That will put Paris in a strong position to assume the leadership of a coalition for growth. With the United Kingdom and Spain having dipped back into recession, there is increasing public support for growth initiatives at the EU level. In the coming elections in France and in the rest of Europe, calling for fiscal austerity without a program for growth is not likely to be successful. The new French government may very well be on the cutting edge of a new Europe -- one that challenges ingrained German interests and looks more to France for leadership.