French leader must unite anti-socialist disparate factions to stand any chance of victory against Francois Hollande.
Sarkozy tasked with rounding up the right to survive, but Le Pen may not endorse
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // Nicolas Sarkozy, the first French head of state to lose the first round of presidential elections, began the biggest test of his political career yesterday as he tried to marshal antisocialist forces to prevent François Hollande replacing him at the Elysée.
His fate lies in the hands of the disparate groups that voted for Marine Le Pen, the far-right populist who fiercely opposes immigration, the euro and the "Islamification" of France, and François Bayrou, a centrist who said he prefers Sarkozy the politician, Hollande the man.
With Ms Le Pen winning 17.9 per cent of the vote during the first round and Mr Bayrou collecting a 9 per cent share, these slices of the French electorate hold the key to Mr Sarkozy's slim prospects of avoiding defeat in the May 6 decider.
Ms Le Pen said yesterday she would make her position known on May 1, but aides insisted there would be no deal with Mr Sarkozy, the more likely approach being a refusal to endorse right or left.
Mr Bayrou said he would "talk to both candidates, listen to their responses and take my responsibility".
Sunday's first round, marked by a high turnout of just under 80 per cent to confound sceptics who had predicted substantial abstention, leaves Mr Hollande the clear favourite to win the second round.
He won 28.63 per cent of the vote but the narrowness of his victory - 27.18 per cent of those voting backed Mr Sarkozy - is less important than the likelihood that most of the 15 per cent of voters for far-left and green candidates are likely to favour the socialist.
The French financial markets opened nervously yesterday but may be considerably more jittery if voters deliver the landslide suggested by early opinion polls putting the socialist challenger, who has no government experience, eight points ahead of Mr Sarkozy.
Mr Hollande is a relatively moderate left winger but plans a tax-and-spend alternative to austerity that conservative critics have said threatens France's economic recovery. They also have argued that he will be a hostage of those far to his left.
In an interview with the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche a week before the vote, Mr Hollande said he would take the measures necessary to prevent the markets second-guessing France's national will.
The last socialist to occupy the Elysée, François Mitterrand, briefly suspended trading when share values and the franc, France's currency, fell sharply after his election in 1981. He later toned down his socialist ambitions and, after winning a second term in 1988, saw the markets respond favourably.
The rise of Ms Le Pen, who won more votes than her father, Jean-Marie, when he rocked the political establishment by reaching a 2002 run-off won by Jacques Chirac, raised eyebrows in France and beyond.
In the Gard area of southern France, she even topped the poll. Mr Sarkozy described it as a "protest vote", but one that had to be respected.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, promised to maintain her support for Mr Sarkozy but her spokesman, Georg Streiterd, said she found the level of support for the far-right "alarming".
Despite the enthusiasm of his supporters, Mr Hollande seemed almost subdued in his responses to Sunday night's news of his first-round victory. In his address to party faithful in his electoral heartland of the Corrèze, in south-western France, he managed to looked less the victor than Mr Sarkozy, ebullient as he promised a Parisian audience he would redouble efforts for the decider.
Not for the first time in the campaign, the president challenged Mr Hollande to three head-to-head televised debates instead of the one planned, a gesture dismissed by the socialist as it had been before.
One interpretation is that both know Mr Sarkozy is stronger in such settings although a Hollande supporter pointed out that France appeared so far to be preferring "Mr Bland to Mr Bling".
Ms Le Pen made no attempt to hide her delight at Sunday's outcome, giving her an emphatic triumph in the mini-battle for third place with the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. "This is just the start," she told supporters in Paris. "Let us continue the fight."
Her aim now appears to be to force the collapse of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, which also faces defeat in legislative elections on June, and establish her Front National as the "only true opposition to the ultraliberal, permissive and libertarian left".
Mr Hollande said he was confident but that it was for France to choose its destiny on May 6. "The choice is simple. Either maintain policies that have failed with a divisive incumbent candidate, or allow France to rise again with a new unifying president," he said.
Meanwhile, after numerous leaks of exit polls on Sunday, prosecutors seeking to enforce French election law, based on fears that such information may influence late voting intentions, are considering whether to take action against media outlets from neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland. France's national news agency, Agence France-Presse, which circulated estimated results shortly before the deadline of 8pm French time, could also be targeted.