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Re-election: Mission impossible for Sarkozy?

By Agnes Poirier, special for CNN
April 23, 2012 -- Updated 1031 GMT (1831 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French flocked to polling stations, contradicting predictions that voters were bored by campaign
  • Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen exceeded vote of her father in 2002 and 2007
  • Sarkozy will continue aggressive tactics, says Agnes Poirier, exploiting rival's lack of experience
  • But he has "impossible task," Poirier says, to court both extreme-right voters and centrists

Editor's note: Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, France and Italy. Follow her on Twitter @AgnesCPoirier

Paris (CNN) -- Pollsters had told us that the French were bored by a dull campaign which had seen more personal attacks flying than issues being debated. They were wrong.

The campaign might have been an unusual one but the French flocked to the polling stations from 8 a.m. on Sunday to cast their votes. Long queues formed outside some of Paris's 869 schools turned "bureaux de vote" and it was clear from midday that the turnout was going to be massive. More than 80% of the 44 million strong electorate went out to vote, only slightly less than in 2007, and certainly more than in 2002.

Ten years ago, a 28% abstention level was blamed for the surprising result of extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen who managed to scrape through to the second round of the elections, shocking France and the world.

Agnes Poirier
Agnes Poirier

On Sunday, the mood at Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party headquarters on Paris's Left Bank was certainly not as buoyant as the one building up through the afternoon at the Socialist Party HQ of presidential challenger Francois Hollande. As the day went on, it looked increasingly clear that Hollande had done well, and was leading in the exit polls. With about 75% of votes counted by late Sunday, Hollande had 27.9% support, followed by Sarkozy at 26.7%.

The surprises came with the results of the three other candidates, hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, centrist François Bayrou and extreme-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Always underestimated by pollsters, the National Front vote in fact exceeded its 2002 historical record, with 19.3% of the votes. Le Pen's successful night meant 6.2 million people voted for her.

Mélenchon, leader of the Left Front, at one point in the campaign credited with 15% of the votes, has failed in his mission to overtake Le Pen. The Mélenchon effect turned out to be a soufflé, but one that eventually went flat: 10.8% is not a bad score for someone who started the campaign with only 5% in the polls but it is still a disappointment considering the élan he had managed to create. Mélenchon was hoping to become the third man of the race and represent the working classes in front of Le Pen, but this did not happen.

Messages to French election candidates

Centrist Bayrou, who, back in 2007, reached 18% of the votes, also failed to make a mark, with only 9.8% of the votes this time. It looks obvious that many French voters, who might have been tempted by a Mélenchon or Bayrou vote, opted for tactical voting, anticipating the second round battle. Hollande did need some momentum behind him; he now has it.

There are now two more than weeks before France elects its president on May 6. Sarkozy will no doubt continue his aggressive tactics, confronting his rival's lack of experience at government level, and trying to corner him during the traditional TV debate. He has even already challenged Hollande to face him not once but three times on key issues: the economy, social policies, and international affairs. Hollande will most likely refuse and be accused of trying to avoid debating, a talent at which Sarkozy excels.

The big question is what will the Le Pen voters do on May 6? Louis Alliot, vice president of the National Front and Le Pen's partner, has already announced he will cast a blank vote, refusing to choose between Sarkozy and Hollande. Will voters follow him?

As for Sarkozy, he faces a seemingly impossible task: courting both extreme-right voters and centrists whose votes he desperately needs to win on May 6. The latest poll after the first round shows that Hollande would win by a margin of between 6%. However, nothing is written yet. Two weeks is an eternity in politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Agnes Poirier.

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