French elections: And the third shall be first…

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To the French media this morning, the first round of the election produced a clear winner. And it wasn’t the man who came first.

Marine Le Pen and the far-right Front National defied every expectation and recorded the best poll numbers in their history.

She won almost a million more votes that her father had back in 2002 when he managed to make it into the second round against Jacques Chirac.

It’s always good to beat expectations, but this was better than they could have dreamed of a week ago when the polls suggested that even third place may be beyond them.

At their headquarters in the gloomy Paris suburd of Nanterre this morning the roads were choked with TV satellite trucks.

Marine Le Pen ate a celebratory lunch in the upstairs room of her local Portuguese restaurant with half a dozen of her closest advisers before braving the media storm outside, and then - almost literally - having to fight her way through a scrum of cameras to an impromptu press conference.

She’s out of this race, but now she may have become the king-maker.

She commands enough votes to decide this election.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses supporters in Paris after the first round vote of the 2012 French presidential election Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

For Nicolas Sarkozy last night was both a huge disappointment and an unexpected opportunity.

For a sitting President to come second to an inexperienced and uninspiring socialist candidate will go down as one of the right’s worst performances since the birth of the Fifth Republic.

But across a field of electoral desolation they can suddenly see a route to victory.

The combined forces of the left came nowhere near the 50% they will need on May 6th to win the Elysée Palace.

If he can make Le Pen’s votes his own, Sarkozy could yet win an unlikely victory.

Election official empties a ballot box
An election official empties a ballot box to count votes from the first round of the voting Credit: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

It’s not a simple matter of moving ‘right-wing’ votes into Sarkozy’s column.

The Front National is firmly on the right in terms of immigration, integration and law and order.

But many of its positions on the economy are well to the left of the socialist François Hollande.

Anti-globalisation, anti-Euro, protectionist, bitterly opposed to the ‘tyranny’ of the financial markets and overpaid financiers.

Many of their voters were working-class, some even former communists, and many would rather renounce red wine and their daily baguette than give their vote to Sarkozy.

He wooed them in 2007 with seductive anti-immigrant and ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric, only to spend the next five years cheating on them with assorted centrists and liberal-minded Europeans.

He’s trying the same trick again, but many are not buying it twice.

A newspaper seller displays an early edition of Le Figaro
A newspaper seller displays an early edition of Le Figaro after the first round of the 2012 French presidential election Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman

It is not clear that, even if Marine Le Pen were to give Sarkozy her full endorsement (most unlikely), many of her supporters would do her bidding.

‘La toute France’ is longing to know, of course, which way she is going to jump, and she will keep them guessing at least until May 1st.

That’s the day that the far-right celebrate Joan of Arc at a huge bash in the Place Des Pyramides in Paris.

Marine always turns up on a horse. Imagine PG Wodehouse creating a female equivalent of Sir Roderick Spode and you get the idea.

In her speech that day she will deliver her verdict on Hollande and Sarkozy, having “carefully examined what they propose for the future of France” as her spokesman told me this morning.

It is, however, more likely that she will come down in favour of neither.

Marine Le Pen with supporters
Marine Le Pen dances at the Equinoxe meeting hall in Paris after early results in the first round President election vote Credit: REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Parliamentary elections follow hard on the heels of the Presidential vote, and the FN will be trying to turn yesterday’s result into seats in the Assemblée Nationale for the first time in decades.

They believe that if Sarkozy loses in 2 weeks time, his party, the UMP, will collapse, leaving the way open for them to become to main party of the right in France.

In this they may be delusional, but if that is their aim the last thing they want is to appear to be Sarkozy’s little helpers when it comes to beating the socialists.

Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate
Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election gestures as he leaves a polling station Credit: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

As for François Hollande, rarely can a first round winner have received so little credit or attention in the hours that followed.

Against a deeply unpopular President he should have done better, and the under performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far-left may hurt him badly.

And now comes the debate - at least one of them - which most observers think Sarkozy will dominate.

So confident is Sarkozy that he’s demanding three, though there’s no way that Hollande will agree.

A poll last night still gives Hollande an 8% lead in the head to head, and most still expect him to win.

But, as last night proved, expectations and reality are often a long way apart.