French voters have used the ballot box to express widespread disillusionment with the main parties and their proposals for austerity measures.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the third place achieved by the neo-fascist Front National leader Martine Le Pen (who, incidentally, enjoyed the support of a column in the Daily Mail, a paper that courted the Nazis in the 1930s).
Le Pen actually finished second in a number of high unemployment, declining areas of northern France which have been hit hard by the recession and the austerity measures imposed by president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The result of the first round is to create huge political uncertainty in the heart of Europe at a time when the common currency is under constant pressure and with support for a “fiscal union” waning in a number of countries, including the Netherlands.
For Sarkozy, coming second to Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande earns him the dubious honour of the first incumbent president to lose the first round since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.
Predictions of a low turnout were overturned by a surprisingly high vote.
But one out of three voters rejected not only Sarkozy but chose candidates from outside the two main parties.
Seasoned observers of French politics have noted:
* “a disenchantment with politics” (New York Times)
* “Few are voting in the expectation of a better tomorrow. The chief appeal during the second round will be 'Vote to stop X!' rather than 'Vote for Y!'” (Telegraph)
* a “strong anti-system vote” ...“The first round result revealed a dissatisfaction and restlessness in France. The elites are despised. The economic future is feared. There is insecurity. All of that leads to volatility in the polls.” (BBC)
Lest anyone think this means Hollande in power would signify a victory for the left, his various nicknames – “Flanby” (after a caramel pudding), “living marshmallow”,“pedalo in a storm” – sum up the lack of threat he poses to the status quo. He recently visited the City of London to reassure the bankers.
But anything he may lack in left rhetoric is more than made up by the Left Party’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who succeeded in coming fourth with 10.8% of the vote. Mélenchon, dubbed the “Gallic George Galloway”, is an ex-Trotskyist from the International Communist Organisation (OCI). In the election campaign he called for a “civic insurrection” and a citizen’s revolution without going into further details.
Mélenchon has already promised support for Hollande in the next round in a bid to prevent Sarkozy from winning.
But, electoral horse-trading aside, the biggest shock of first round was the unexpectedly high vote for FN candidate, Le Pen, daughter of fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. With 18% of the votes, she was the dark horse, who defying all predictions, beat even her father’s 17% result - itself unexpected - back in 2002.
Le Pen has toned down her father’s anti-immigration, white supremacy stance since she become FN leader. But she reverted to his anti-Arab racism during the election campaign, saying “all Franco-Algerians” were a potential security threat.
Le Pen and Sarkozy seek to outdo each other in attacking immigrants and defending “Frenchness”.
Fear of losing to Hollande will no doubt drive Sarkozy even further to the right in a bid to tap in to the FN’s constituency.
The first round results are an expression of the deep disquiet with the existing political system. A defeat for Sarkozy will intensify the crisis not only for Sarkozy and his party, the Union for a Popular Movement. It will destabilise the close relationship between France and Germany and the European Union project.
This is under considerable pressure. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilder’s far-right Freedom Party which is close to Le Pen’s in its anti-Muslim racism, refused to agree budget cuts over the weekend, pushing the coalition government towards collapse.
The far right parties in Europe are cashing in as the mainstream bourgeois parties as well as those like the Socialist Party in France who are also part of the political establishment desperately defend the indefensible status quo. Mapping out a clear, democratic alternative to the failed capitalist state and the unsustainable economic system it represents was never more urgent.
A World to Win secretary