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Will the far right be the kingmaker in France's presidential election? (+video)

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen captured 18 percent of the vote yesterday. How her supporters vote in the runoff could be the deciding factor between President Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.

France presidential election: 'crunch time' between Sarkozy, Hollande
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy told roaring crowds last night that it is “crunch time” now that the presidential election has been narrowed down to a May 6 runoff between him and Socialist challenger François Hollande, to whom he lost by one point in the first round of elections yesterday.

A high 81 percent turnout rate in national elections combined, unusually, with low voter enthusiasm captured something of the political disillusionment. But also the high stakes for the future at a time when five governments in Europe have collapsed over fallout from the ongoing debt crisis. 

Mr. Hollande captured 27 percent of the vote, with Mr. Sarkozy just behind at 26 percent. The election has become a referendum on how the No. 2 economy in Europe – which the International Monetary Fund hinted has the potential to drag down the world economy – will deal with the eurozone crisis going forward. Hollande campaigned for stronger growth policies while Sarkozy has hitched his wagon to the austerity prescription favored by Berlin for the past year.

Yesterday was the first time in modern France a challenger defeated an incumbent in round one. Yet the thunder created by the intelligent, mild-mannered Hollande was largely stolen by the far right candidate Marine Le Pen, who took 18 percent of the vote in a country where anger and disillusion are rife.  

The strong showing on the far right and the weaker-than-expected showing of far-left candidate Jean Luc Melenchon suggests that Hollande may not be as much a shoe-in in May as the buzz in Paris has had it in recent days. Ms. Le Pen's supporters are far more likely – 60 perfect more – to shift their votes to Sarkozy than to Hollande in the second vote, although polls today show Hollande capturing 53 to 56 percent of the vote while Sarkozy gets 44 to 47 percent. 

Three key questions

There are three key questions being asked in Paris today about the meaning of yesterday's results: 

  • Has the political center of France shifted further to the right in recent years than the cognoscenti thought?
  • Will supporters of Le Pen – who focused her campaign on socially divisive and emotional issues related to nationalism, foreigners, and Islam – now help reelect Sarkozy?
  • And will Sarkozy spend the next two weeks fishing in the previously forbidden waters of the far right?

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