A New Hope in France

French voters dealt a blow to the far-right and the far-left, reassuring themselves and the world of the strength of their democracy and the prospects for healthy change to reverse France’s decline.

With a record 85 percent turnout in the first round of the presidential election, French voters dealt a blow to the far-right and the far-left, reassuring themselves and the world of the strength of their democracy and the prospects for healthy change to reverse France's decline. The two mainstream candidates, center-right leader Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Ségolène Royal have emerged as contenders for the May 6 run-off. The main surprise in Sunday's ballot was Jean-Marie Le Pen's collapse from second place and 17 percent of the vote five years ago to a distant fourth with 11 percent of the vote. The far-left also receded from 11 to 9 percent. These poor results for the extremes come despite five years of social upheaval and a widely shared sense of decline. High turnout did not favor fringe candidates and voters rallied behind those most likely to take charge of the country's problems.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who has dominated French politics since 2002, finished first with a convincing 31 percent of the vote against 25.5 percent for Ségolène Royal. As first-time candidates, Sarkozy scored eleven points higher than incumbent Jacques Chirac in 2002 and Royal nine points better than socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. With 18.5 percent, third place finisher Francois Bayrou tripled his own score of 2002, the best performance since 1969 for a centrist candidate with no Gaullist support.

Sarkozy's success and Le Pen's debacle vindicate the former's strategy since that infamous 2002 vote. Sarkozy understood that the center-right's future hinged on tackling the concrete issues of crime and immigration that affect the silent majority-issues raised by Le Pen. Sarkozy reasoned that as long as the center-right would consider these issues taboo, the left would continue to capitalize on a divided right. Sarkozy's performance last Sunday and his prospects in the May 6 run-off demonstrate that a mainstream politician can win by putting all issues on the table and offering bold and innovative solutions, however controversial, in direct and simple language.

The weakening of the far-left and the Greens underscores that the left has learned the lessons of April 22, 2002. To qualify its mainstream candidate for the run-off, it must avoid dispersing its votes among candidates to the left of the socialists. In addition, without an incumbent socialist president or prime minister, left voters were not tempted to "punish" them for not being "left enough".

As for centrist François Bayrou, he benefited from socialist voters' skepticism about Royal's competence and the perception by some voters on the right that Sarkozy's personality, discourse and policies are too brash. Bayrou appealed to voters by promising to draw equally from the right and the left to form a government.

The paradox of this election is that Le Pen lost support at a time when his themes of law and order, immigration, protectionism and patriotism are paramount in the minds of voters. These issues now permeate all parties, with the exception of the far-left and the Greens, and dominate French political discourse. The ascendancy and legitimizing of these themes have dramatically-and most likely durably-shifted French politics to the right. The left, with a total of 36 percent of the vote, has hit its lowest level since 1969.

What this election and the campaign that preceded it also demonstrate is the capacity of the French political system to accommodate change without resorting to the extremes. Much has been said about this election being about change-and the fear of it. A majority of the French believe that their country is in decline-political, economic, social, cultural and international-and is going through a deep identity crisis. Since 1981, all legislative elections have led to the defeat of the incumbent majority.

However, the absence in the race of an incumbent president or prime minister has accelerated the rise of a new generation of politicians: Sarkozy and Royal are in their early fifties. Sarkozy is the son of immigrants and did not go to ENA, the elite graduate school that has bred most top politicians; Royal is the first woman who could be elected president. Both have successfully challenged their party's establishment as outsiders. Sarkozy was able to transform the Gaullist party into a traditional conservative party, against President Chirac's will. The candidates have adopted a less distant style along with a more concrete and less ideological discourse. Even former and sitting cabinet ministers had to present themselves as "anti-system" candidates. It is no small paradox that the mainstream candidate who has symbolized the desire for change, Nicolas Sarkozy, is also the president of the incumbent party.

Moreover, unconventionally for France, change has come from the right, not the left. As a center-right politician who was elected and has governed on the center-left, Chirac moved French politics to the left (in the process, losing his natural base of support for no benefit). After gaining control of Chirac's party, Sarkozy pulled it to the right. Royal positioned herself on the right of the Socialist party. Like most centrists, Bayrou is closer to the right than the left, whatever his claims to the contrary.

This tilt to the right of the leading politicians has been reinforced by the major issues as well as the candidates' political strategies and discourse. Of the two sets of issues that have recently dominated French politics-economic and social challenges on one hand; crime, immigration and French identity on the other-the latter has gathered the greater momentum. They are natural concerns for the right and became Sarkozy's staple issues. Events have kept them at the center of public debate, with the dramatic urban riots of 2005 and the recent battle at a Paris railway station between the police and supporters of a delinquent illegal immigrant.