The first round of the French presidential elections last Sunday was haunted by its counterpart five years ago.
On 21 April 2002 the Nazi leader Jean-Marie Le Pen pushed the Socialist Party prime minister Lionel Jospin into third place and out of the second round.
But on Sunday Le Pen was humiliated, his vote cut to less than 11 percent of the total. And Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate, with more than a quarter of the total, made it through to the run-off election on 6 May, where she will face Nicolas Sarkozy of the governing right.
The Parisian centre left evening paper Le Monde said “politics has taken its revenge on 21 April”.
But Le Pen’s vote fell because Sarkozy stole his vicious right wing policies on issues like crime and immigration.
Moreover, Sarkozy was the front runner on Sunday with more than 31 percent of the vote. This comes after 12 years of the right holding the presidency under Jacques Chirac.
The fact that Royal is running second despite Chirac’s record of economic stagnation and corruption is a condemnation of both her and the Socialist Party.
Initially, Royal modelled her campaign on Tony Blair, for example calling for the conscription of youth criminals.
But to combat Sarkozy and appeal to traditional Socialist Party voters, she tacked a bit to the left in recent weeks.
All the leading candidates, including the two with strongest business support, Sarkozy and François Bayrou of the centre right, sought to distance themselves from Anglo-Saxon style free market policies.
The European Central Bank came under heavy attack for keeping interest rates too high.
Nevertheless mainstream commentators are congratulating themselves that, after the shock defeat of the neoliberal European Constitution in the referendum of May 2005, French politics is becoming “normal”.
They should be careful not to count their chickens too soon.
The last presidential elections in 2002 saw a massive fragmentation of the vote with 16 candidates standing in the first round.
This reflected voters’ alienation from official politics and their lack of enthusiasm for the two leading candidates, Chirac and Jospin. Nearly 30 percent of the electorate didn’t bother to vote at all.
This time, however, the memory of 2002 and fear of Sarkozy’s aggressive right wing politics pushed the turnout up to nearly 85 percent of the electorate.
And the votes of the smaller candidates on both left and right were squeezed.
There was, however, one very important exception to this.
Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) came fifth last Sunday, winning more than 4 percent of the vote.
Given the enormous pressure on left wing voters to “vote usefully” and back Royal or even Bayrou to stop Sarkozy and Le Pen, this is a remarkable achievement.
It comes at the end of a campaign of massive and enthusiastic rallies around France.
Besancenot ran well ahead of Marie-George Buffet of the Communist Party, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière, and José Bové, the anti-capitalist campaigner.
Bové, who ran as the supposedly “unitary” anti-neoliberal candidate of the rump of the collectives that had campaigned against the European Constitution, won 1.32 percent of the vote.
All the same, despite the pressure to back Royal, the combined vote of the radical left was over 9 percent of the total.
Though about five points down on their performance in 2002, this represented over one million more votes and shows the enduring strength of the forces opposed to neoliberalism in France.
Le Monde conceded that “the LCR has placed itself as leader of the anti-neoliberal left”.
A heavy responsibility rests on the LCR to overcome the political fragmentation to the left of the Socialist Party and to create a powerful and united radical left.
But that is a task for the future.
The immediate challenge is to beat Sarkozy, who won the best vote of any right wing candidate since 1974.
Opinion polls put him well ahead of Royal in the second round on Sunday week.
Besancenot has called on the 1.5 million people who voted for him to help turn the second round into “an anti-Sarkozy referendum for all those who plan to resist his policies.
“The issue isn’t to support Ségolène Royal but to vote against Nicolas Sarkozy.”
Congratulations and good luck to him and his comrades!