French democracy has diced with death and again somehow dodged disaster.

An election campaign that generated little enthusiasm or optimism has yielded the result most observers predicted. In the first round anyway. It averted the left voters’ nightmare of diluted votes resulting in a win by default for the right.

The French do not have preferential voting. The two candidates with the highest total votes in the first ballot go head to head a fortnight later, unless someone wins 50% plus one.

In 2002, 10 of the 16 round-one candidates were from the left with fewer from the right. In a shock result, the centre right’s Jacques Chirac and the extreme right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen won the top two spots, though with less than 37% of the vote between them. The leading socialist candidate Lionel Jospin came third with 16%.

This meant Chirac faced Le Pen in the second round — both right wing politicians — despite the electorate voting overwhelmingly for left parties in the first.

Yesterday, with 10 candidates there was the possibility again the five from the left could divide the votes and destroy the chance of any one of them getting first or second place. In the event this did not happen, with socialist François Hollande coming first with 28.4% and the incumbent centre right Nicolas Sarkozy coming second with 25.5%. Hollande did better than polls had predicted, Sarkozy worse.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen surprised everyone, herself included, with a touch under 20%. Daughter of veteran candidate and 2002 runner-up Jean-Marie Le Pen, she certainly had strong name recognition. Le pen almost doubling her father’s result five years earlier suggests issues of immigration, race and religion remain unresolved.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front alliance performed worse than expected with 11.7%. Centrist François Bayrou also disappointed with 8.5%. Bayrou, with Sarkozy, stood in 2007. He came third then with almost 19%.

Eva Joly’s 2% for the Greens was extremely disappointing given her high profile as a judge in famous criminal prosecutions in a former life, and given the Greens’ momentum in many nations, including Australia.

On yesterday’s vote it appears Hollande is likely to win the run-off with Sarkozy comfortably. With the president’s vote down from 31% in 2007 to less than 26% yesterday, he seems headed for about 44% in May if the same disillusionment is expressed. We won’t know, of course, until May 6, and the French can surprise.

A change to the serious François Holland will mean a less colourful character in the Élysée Palace. But probably no major shift in relations within Europe or foreign policy more broadly.

Likely domestic changes include higher taxes on the rich, the retirement age brought back to 60 for most workers, education and other public service jobs restored, full marriage for same-s-x couples, more social housing and better services for the disadvantaged. Probably no change to the voting system.

So why have the French not fixed things since 2002, say with preferential voting on one day as in Australia? “Ah, that would require change,” seems to be the answer.

And why then do left voters risk having right and far right candidates taking the top two positions by presenting so many left candidates?

The answer to that is not so simple. One voter explained: “It does not really matter who wins. The children will still go to school, le boulanger will make the baguettes and the grapes we will harvest in September.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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