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The fight for the centre

The results of Sunday's first round of the French presidential poll saw Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and Parti Socialiste (PS) Socialist Segolene Royal emerge as the two leading contenders for the May 6th run-off. Mr. Sarkozy scored just over 31.11 per cent of the vote while Ms. Royal obtained 25.84 per cent. This is something of a double victory for the French who managed, through these elections, to keep both abstentions and the extremes at bay. Nearly 85 per cent of registered voters participated, beating a 40-year-old record. This indicates that the French who had become weary of elections are suddenly setting aside their famed apathy in order to fully participate in the future of their country. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the hate-mongering extreme right leader who was threatening a re-run of 2002 when he edged into the second round, was soundly thrashed — he got less than 11 per cent of the vote. Other parties, whether from the left or the right, all scored less than five per cent each. French democracy appears to have matured with this vote.

The question on everybody's mind is what centrist leader Francois Bayrou does with his 18 per cent share of the vote. His score is significant enough for him to play the role of kingmaker in the second round. Mr. Sarkozy's high score of 31 per cent and Mr. Le Pen's poor score of 10.5 per cent are clearly linked. The former used every trick in the world — putting homosexuality, suicides, delinquency, and mental illness all down to "genetic factors" — to seduce National Front voters. Will he be able to employ similar tactics to cajole the remaining die-hard Lepenists or will he risk a steady outward stream of centrist voters by doing so? Simple arithmetic tells us that right-wing voters clearly outnumber those from the left in France. But will centre-right voters who had moved to Mr. Bayrou feel compelled to go back to the right-wing fold for the final count or will Ms. Royal be able to persuade them that she and not Mr. Sarkozy incarnates the new societal ideal that the French are so desperately seeking. Much will depend on what kind of negotiations take place between Mr. Bayrou and the Socialist camp on the one hand and between him and the ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) on the other. In her speech on Sunday, Ms. Royal appeared somewhat stunned by the seemingly unbridgeable gap that separates her from Mr. Sarkozy — over five percentage points. He is clearly in a better position for the May 6 combat but he could have used up all his trumps last Sunday. If that is the case, Ms. Royal can still beat him provided she is able to address the fears and grievances of large sections of very different voters and to do so with both honesty and clarity.

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