On the face of it, the results of the French presidential election appear to represent a revival of mainstream parties.
The Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy, the right wing UMP candidate, and François Bayrou, of the centre right UDF, together won around 75 percent of the vote, compared to under 50 percent in 2002.
But this resurgence does not represent renewed political affiliation with the mainstream.
One French poll showed that a third of Sarkozy’s electorate, and more than half of those who voted for Royal, did so more to ensure their candidate reached the second round than because they supported them politically.
Rather than a renewal of the three main parties, this vote reveals that most people recognise there is one thing worse than the mainstream – the fascist Front National (FN).
This also helps explain the record turnout, boosted by over three million new voters, many from France’s impoverished suburbs.
In this context the 1.5 million votes won by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’s Olivier Besancenot was a significant achievement.
During the campaign Sarkozy vowed to take on the labour movement by limiting the right to strike.
He then claimed that paedophilia and teenage suicides were genetically determined – a deliberate echo of the sociobiological arguments peddled by the FN.
The legitimisation of the FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ideas by Sarkozy, and the failure of the mainstream candidates to oppose the FN’s racism, gave Le Pen scope to wage an even more reactionary campaign than before.
Le Pen labelled the four children of unmarried Royal as “bastards” and contrasted his Frenchness with Sarkozy’s Hungarian and Jewish origins.
Despite having his vote cut by around a million, the fact that Le Pen was still able to win 3.8 million votes is an indication that the FN remains a threat in an increasingly polarised environment.
This polarisation created a heightened political atmosphere right across France during the election.
This was illustrated by the huge number of people mobilised by all sides.
In the week before the poll 9,000 people turned out in Nantes and 20,000 in Toulouse to hear Ségolène Royal. A total of 50,000 people attended the 42 rallies organised around towns and cities across France by Besancenot during the campaign.
Just days before the election, up to 4,000 people came to hear Besancenot speak in a meeting in Paris so packed that it overflowed into the street.
While opposition to Le Pen was a key element in the election campaign, there is also increasing anxiety about the prospect of a Sarkozy presidency.
Some in Sarkozy’s entourage have been making overtures to the FN.
Le Pen has claimed that Sarkozy is a man he can do business with.
In the last week of the campaign one magazine ran a 12 page dossier on the danger posed by Sarkozy, selling nearly half a million copies within a few days.
The elections take place against the backdrop of several years of revolt against neoliberal attacks.
Whoever wins the second round on 6 May is likely to be reminded that this opposition to neoliberalism runs much deeper than was indicated by this vote.
With anti-Sarkozy demonstrations planned for 1 May, the left now has a chance to make opposition to Sarkozy count, in the ballot box and on the streets.
Jim Wolfreys is co-author with Peter Fysh of The Politics of Racism in France, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com