Conventional wisdom holds that in the first round of presidential elections, French voters vote with their hearts and typically winnow the field of candidates to the two highest vote-getters.
This often swells the vote counts for fringe candidates and explains the odd outcome in 2002, when perennial anti-immigrant fringe candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second, or that Arlette Laguiller of the Workers Struggle Party, which calls for a ban on all layoffs by profit-making companies, grabbed 6 percent of the vote.
Then in the final round, conventional wisdom says French voters revert to sensibleness and vote with their heads, or their pocketbooks. Thus in 2002 Jacques Chirac of the right-of-center (slightly left-of-center by American standards) Union for a Popular Movement, crushed Le Pen in the final voting.
But in first-round voting last week, French voters confounded conventional wisdom by giving most of their votes to the two most-serious candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy of the UPM, who captured 31 percent, and Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party, who polled about 25 percent.
Francois Bayrou of the Union for French Democracy, generally viewed as a centrist, who some polls had expected to beat Royal, pulled 18.4 percent.
More than 84 percent of French voters participated, about 13 percent more than five years ago.
What accounts for this massive turnout and this new seriousness early on?
Perhaps it is because this is the first group of candidates who came of age after World War II and represent a post-Cold War mentality.
Perhaps it is France’s deep economic malaise — France’s GDP per person has fallen to No. 17 in the world today from seventh 25 years ago — or the ongoing difficulty of assimilating millions of Muslim immigrants.
Perhaps it is an awareness that power shifts in the wake of the end of the Cold War are ushering in a new era in European and French politics.
Sarkozy is the most interesting harbinger of a new era in France. In a country noted for anti-Americanism, he expresses unadulterated admiration for the United States, especially for its work ethic and free-market policies. As interior minister he was in charge of dealing with immigrant riots a couple of years ago and did so decisively, even calling some of the rioters “scum.”
Although his party is titular heir to the Gaullist tradition — roughly defined as the conviction that France, as leader of Europe, must play a significant role in world affairs — he is more interested in domestic reform than the world stage.
Sarkozy is leading in the polls for the May 6 runoff at this point, although things could change. Bayrou is holding off on his endorsement, and both Sarkozy and Royal are courting Bayrou and the 6.8 million voters who backed him in the first round. Sarkozy is threatening a hostile takeover bid of Bayrou’s party if he does not back the presidential frontrunner.
In the meantime, Royal’s party is split and pessimistic, reports the Financial Times; she is not likely to be able to forge a more centrist coalition.
If elected, Sarkozy may be able to do less than he envisions, considering how deeply entrenched restrictive labor laws and long-term unaffordable welfare-state benefits are in French culture.
Whoever wins, however, France is a country whose political class is in transition, given the strengthening center and disarray on the left. It could well be headed on a new path.