By John Rapley
In the first round of the French presidential election, few were surprised that the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, came in first place, with a little under a third of the vote. After all, one incumbent after another has been losing office in European elections, as voters turn on governments that led them into the financial crisis.
Yet the blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy is still grave. It is the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic (in existence since 1958) that an incumbent president has not topped the list after the first round of voting. And while, statistically, Mr Sarkozy still has a chance of winning the second round and retaining office next week, the odds are long.
In his favour is the fact that more people voted for right-wing candidates, including him, than left-wing candidates. A bit under a tenth supported the centrist François Bayrou. So in theory, if Mr Sarkozy rallied the conservative vote, he'd need to only get a minority of the centrist vote to keep his home in the Elysée Palace.
In practice, that looks unlikely. Only the top two candidates make it through to the second round of France's presidential election. The remaining ones can negotiate for concessions before throwing their support behind one or other candidate. Or they can just sit it out.
The left is split between the socialists and parties that are further out on the spectrum, like communists. Though they dislike the moderation of the socialists, they loathe Sarkozy, and so have been quick to throw their support behind Mr Hollande.
Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, must try to attract the nearly one-fifth of voters who opted for the candidate of the extreme Right, Marine Le Pen. But Ms Le Pen, emboldened by the best ever performance by her party, the National Front, is setting her eyes on a bigger prize. She is proposing radical change to the country, from banning immigrants to scrapping the euro and returning to the franc. She is so far to the right that Sarkozy and Hollande must look to her like Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Whereas a large majority of communists will vote for Mr Hollande, only about two-thirds of National Front supporters indicate a willingness to back Mr Sarkozy. Moreover, talking with the National Front remains something of a taboo in French politics. So Mr Sarkozy has to use a strategy of moving further to the Right without actually courting Ms Le Pen.
He's been doing just that, talking up law-and-order initiatives championed by the Front or drawing into question the right of adolescents to obtain contraception without parental consent. But as he does so, he offends the centre. A recent poll suggests that most of Mr Bayrou's supporters will gravitate towards Mr Hollande in the second round.
Signalling a rejection
All in all, it is looking likely that after next weekend, the socialists will run France for the first time in nearly two decades. Assuming it happens, Mr Hollande's elevation will signal a firm rejection of the 'Merkozy' alliance - the pact between Mr Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to impose strict austerity on European states, as a way to manage through the financial crisis.
But there is more than just that. There is a disturbing subtext to this election. If one adds abstentions to the third of the electorate who opted for parties of the extreme Left or extreme Right, fully a half of French voters are turning their backs on the existing political system. This mirrors a trend that has shown up in several democracies, where voter turnout is dwindling, and politics is becoming dominated by special interests.
And when people lose faith in democracy, the future of democracy itself comes into question. Whoever wins next week's election will, therefore, be mistaken if he treats the result as a ringing endorsement.
John Rapley is a research associate at the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.