The first round of the French presidential election is a national carnival that seldom disappoints. If Sunday’s vote follows the opinion polls, only President Nicolas Sarkozy with 28 per cent of the vote and his Socialist party opponent François Hollande (a predicted 27 per cent) will remain in the ring. The country will then be faced with the real choice of who is to run France for the next five years, but the elimination of the eight outsiders will have taken most of the high spirits out of the campaign.

The first round is the roll call of true believers. Three of the current candidates are Trotskyists (or ex-Trotskyists) and four have never scored more than 1.5 per cent in the opinion polls. But until the eve of the election, according to the rules, all must be granted the same level of attention and national airtime.

They include Eva Joly, who started her life in France as a Norwegian au pair and then developed into a ferocious anti-corruption examining magistrate. She is now the Green Party’s choice for president. But despite her distinctive personal career she is a political disaster. In the past the French Greens have polled above 10 per cent of the vote. This year ‘la Joly’ only made the headlines when she tripped up and gave herself a black eye, after which she changed her spectacle frames from bright red to bright green. She has not been helped by the ferocious squabbles that have broken out among her supporters. Among them are political dinosaurs such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, once known as ‘Danny le Rouge’, leader of the 1968 Paris student insurrection. Eva Joly’s political career will be terminated if she scores the humiliating prediction of 3 per cent.

Meanwhile two rival outsiders called Poutou and Dupont-Aignan, both wearing black shirts, have added some gaiety to the national debate. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, somewhere to the right of Sarkozy, favours a silk black shirt, a close shave and a military haircut. His movement, called ‘Stand up (Debout) the Republic’, is essentially anti-European Union. He wants to relaunch a small alliance of nine north European nation states. He also wants to abandon the euro and return to the franc. Convention requires commentators to ask him what he will do if he is elected and his answer is, ‘reimpose tariff barriers, ban imports of Chinese technology and renationalise both the power suppliers and oil companies’. His objective is to enable the true France, the eternal France, to re-emerge and resume its global civilising mission. His current voting score is 1.0 per cent.

Philippe Poutou is the candidate of the New Anti-capitalist Party, and one of the three Trots. Looking as though he could use a laundrette, he pitches up for the televised debates in an open-necked black shirt, designer stubble and the relaxed air of a man who has just stubbed out a joint. His programme? ‘Outlaw Capitalism. Nationalise the banks, cancel all credit-card debt, introduce a maximum 32-hour working week and give pension rights to train drivers at age 55. There will be a massive expansion of jobs in the health and education sectors.’

Asked how he would pay for all this during a solo interview at prime time on France 2, he suggested that this was the moment to confiscate the considerable fortune of Martin Bouygues, who is the television station’s majority shareholder. Pause for breath and jovial smile. Poutou lives in a world of his own. The true vocation of his party, he says, is to become the leading opposition party to the forthcoming Socialist government. C’est magnifique, but it’s not real politics. The latest score for Monsieur Poutou is 1.5 per cent.

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The serious battle for the Elysée palace started in earnest in mid-February with an ill-judged intervention from Angela Merkel in favour of President Sarkozy. This blunder did neither of them any good, and the German chancellor has not attempted to repeat it. A month later there was a brief political truce following the tragic murder of three school children and four adults in the Toulouse region by an Islamicist terrorist. The brisk police operation that followed, culminating in the shooting down of the suspect three days later, gave the President a much-needed boost. But he has recently started to look uncharacteristically tired and has made a number of blunders, including the false claim that he visited the Fukushima nuclear power station after last year’s accident, when he actually got no closer than Tokyo. Such errors have dismayed his supporters, who were counting on the president’s hyperactive style to exhaust the less energetic Hollande. But until they can get at each other there is Sunday’s vote.

Not everyone enjoys the Comédie- Française, and more voters are complaining that none of the presidential candidates has been seriously addressing their urgent concerns about unemployment, housing and falling living standards. Both Sarkozy and Hollande have been distracted from doing so by the fact that each has met his stalker, an outsider who has no prospect of being elected but who nonetheless threatens his own chances of a second-round win. In response both men have been forced to make completely unrealistic first-round promises. This has heightened the sense of drama, while adding to the impression that substantial issues are being ignored.

Sarkozy’s original ploy was to present himself as the candidate of national unity and a man whose competence was proved by his record over the last five years. But his stance has been undermined by the popularity of the new leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen has actually doubled her share of the vote among 18-to-24-year-olds (up to an astonishing 26 per cent, more than any other candidate). The new generation does not apparently smell sulphur and swastikas when they look at Marine. They just see a fellow outsider. In their view her simplistic solutions could even succeed in controlling immigration and decreasing unemployment, which in some places is as high as 40 per cent. Le Pen’s youthful followers have been characterised by elite sociologists as ‘thick and ignorant’, but when she spent an evening debating with the country’s future leaders at ‘Sciences Po’ in Paris she left the hall to warm applause. Her latest score of 16 per cent places her above all other minority candidates. But predictions of the National Front vote frequently underestimate it, since many voters refuse to identify themselves to pollsters. Marine’s father, the pungent founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen — who succeeded in getting into the second round by defeating the sitting Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in 2002 — did so by scoring four points above his predicted vote.

All this has forced Sarkozy to compete for National Front votes and to abandon his international statesman stance and make increasingly intolerant noises about crime and immigration. One of the wildest promises he has made so far is to threaten to take France out of the Schengen agreement, which imposes a common frontier on most European Union states.

Meanwhile François Hollande, who retains a predicted ten-point lead for the second round on 6 May, has also been forced into some uncomfortable positions. His attempts to woo the centrist followers of François Bayrou (lying fifth on 9.5 per cent) have proved ineffective and this has forced him to move the other way and to admit the possibility of Communist Party ministers.

Hollande’s difficulties have been caused by the unforeseen success of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (on 13 per cent), the demagogue bruiser who is the Communist Party’s presidential candidate. Mélenchon has made Hollande his particular target. His cruellest jest was to compare France to a ship battling wit
h a hurricane while the person asking to take the helm, Hollande, ‘resembles the captain of a pedalo’.

Mélenchon’s bullying manner assured him of a strong start but he has shown signs of flagging during the run-in. He has gone to war with the press over suggestions that he has friends on the extreme right and funded his campaign by selling his constituency house, which was partly purchased out of the expenses allowance he was paid as a member of the senate. This was a perfectly legal act but not that of a man of the people.

One of Mélenchon’s fantastic proposals is to impose a 100 per cent tax rate on anyone with annual earnings of more than €360k. This forced Hollande to say that he would impose a 75 per cent tax rate on those earning over €1 million. Few people believe that this absurd idea will ever be implemented, but it has made François Hollande look rather foolish.

The man most likely to be the next president of the French Republic is a decent, clever but ineffectual figure who has suffered one public humiliation after another. It started when his former partner and the Socialist party’s 2007 presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, mother of his four children, held hands with him at a national rally and then told the world that his most notable characteristic was indecision. Next Martine Aubry, one of his most powerful and long-stranding colleagues, said that her leader ‘unfortunately lacks backbone’.

In view of this, Sarkozy’s best remaining chance may lie in the televised face-to-face debate that traditionally dominates the last fortnight’s campaign. In 2007 he destroyed Ségolène Royal’s chances during this duel, and he must hope that he can repeat the result when faced with her former partner. But when the result is declared, the winner may decide that — given the still growing eurocrisis — 2012 would have been a good election to have lost. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated