On Sunday, one-fifth of French voters are likely to think seriously about their country’s future and mark their ballot beside a presidential candidate who has proposed to annex the Belgian state of Wallonia and raise the top income tax rate to 100 per cent.
That candidate, the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Party, also promises to lower the retirement age to 60, shorten the working week and force companies to give lifetime contracts to 95 per cent of their workers at a moment when France faces a serious fiscal and industrial crisis.
Another 20 per cent of the electorate seem poised to cast their lot with Marine Le Pen, whose father founded her National Front party as a platform for views that verge on Holocaust denial, and who, in a more cheerful but still extreme-right campaign, is vowing to eliminate virtually all immigration, shut France’s borders and bring back the strap in schools.
You might think, if you had never experienced an election here before, that the French, otherwise fairly conservative in their values, have become wild-eyed extremists, dividing their intellectual energies between outright communism and something close to fascism.
This election campaign has often been dominated by the witty, entertaining mass rallies of Mr. Mélenchon and the incessant media outbursts of Ms. Le Pen. Between them, they have outshone the dour and over-familiar face of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his competent but grey challenger, centre-left leader François Hollande.
Of course, once the first-round election is done on Sunday night, the only contenders left will almost certainly be Mr. Hollande, who is leading at 29.5 per cent in the polls, and Mr. Sarkozy, currently at 27.5 per cent. Mr. Hollande is projected to win the runoff two weeks later with 56 per cent of the vote – though French ballots have a history of defying predictions.
That near-certainty has had an almost narcotic effect on French voters, encouraging them to cast first-round votes this week as experiments, as displays of anti-establishment rage, or simply as ways to tick people off. So Ms. Le Pen has been polling between 15 and 17 per cent – a record for her party – and Mr. Mélenchon has been polling around 15 per cent but has surged up to 20 per cent during the campaign. A record number of French voters, 29 per cent, are undecided, so those numbers could rise.
“This election has been marked by a volatility of the electorate,” said pollster Bruno Jeanbart of the OpinionWay firm. “What we’re seeing here is an erosion of the partisan reflex, a very strong electoral zapping” between candidates.
Indeed, the utter predictability of this year’s final vote seems to have liberated voters to back more extreme parties. “The idea, wrong or right, that [the two major candidates]will go through to the second round and that François Hollande will win the second round, allows the voters to support other candidates,” Brice Teinturier of Ipsos France, another polling company, told reporters. “As a result the French are discovering the faces and proposals of those whom they may not have seen or heard before.”
In other countries, the mainstream left and right parties spend their election campaigns bending toward the centre in order to win over one another’s voters. In France the opposite occurs. Normally moderate candidates start saying extreme things in order to win voters back from the far-out fringes. Take Mr. Hollande. Stung by Mr. Mélenchon popularity, promised to raise income tax to 75 per cent and withdraw France from some European Union agreements.
Mr. Sarkozy went even further to try to prevent Ms. Le Pen from stealing his votes. After the terrorist shooting spree in Toulouse by the son of Algerian immigrants that killed seven people, including three Jewish children, Mr. Sarkozy proposed harsh policies including laws against looking at extremist sites on the Internet.
This week Mr. Sarkozy vented some of his frustration at Ms. Le Pen’s success, telling voters what the pollsters know – that Mr. Hollande is benefiting from this division of the right. “A vote for Le Pen serves who? Francois Hollande,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “It is a kick in the ants’ nest – you get the Socialists and more taxes.”
This will not be a repeat of the 2002 election, when fringe parties so splintered the left that the Socialists failed to make it through the first round, and Ms. Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen appeared on the final ballot – all to the horror of official France and to the great electoral advantage of President Jacques Chirac, who handily won a re-election.
Rather, it appears to be the opposite. Mr. Mélenchon, who has declared that he will vote for Mr. Hollande, will help the Socialists in the second round, while Ms. Le Pen’s voters are less likely to back Mr. Sarkozy. The fifth-place candidate, ardent centrist Francois Bayrou, is more likely to throw his support to the centre-left this time.
Still, there is a real sense that the energy of the extreme candidates was the only interesting factor in an election whose main candidates have failed to excite voters the way Mr. Sarkozy and his charismatic challenger Ségolène Royal did in 2007.
“The real phenomenon in this election has been the momentum created by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, throughout the campaign,” says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris.
“Mélenchon is a remarkable candidate… through his wit, his knowledge, his ability to mobilize symbols that affect the political unconscious of the left, he went from a marginal position than, perhaps, being the third man.”