Paris Matchup

The French voted with their heads, not their hearts.

A few days before the first round of the French presidential election, I had a conversation about the upcoming vote with Hervé, an acquaintance who works at a Paris wine shop called La Dernière Goutte in the 6th Arrondissement. Hervé, who speaks very idiomatic English, recalled the shock he felt when Jean-Marie Le Pen made the second round of the presidential election five years ago; dreading a repeat performance by the far-right candidate, he said he would be seated in front of the television Sunday night “shitting in my pants.”

If true to his word, Hervé wasted a good pair of underwear. Le Pen finished fourth in Sunday’s vote, polling just over 10 percent. Rather than understating Le Pen’s support, as happened in 2002, this time around, pre-election polls significantly overstated his share of the vote. This was just one way in which the French electorate confounded the experts. In the lead-up to Sunday, all the talk was of volatility and unpredictability. A huge number of people claimed to be still undecided on the eve of the first round, and it was thought (and feared) that French voters, true to form, might serve up at least one big surprise. On Sunday, they did—it just wasn’t the one anyone really expected: Yielding to pragmatism, they sent the two longtime front-runners, Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal, into the second round.

Despite gorgeous weather—warm temperatures and cloudless skies—French voters turned out in enormous numbers Sunday—an astonishing 84 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Restaurants were eerily quiet as 8 p.m. approached, the time when the results were due to be announced. Even stranger, though, was the lack of street theater after the outcome was made known. Having been in Paris during two World Cup soccer tournaments, I expected to hear at least a few celebratory shouts and honks, especially given the emotions stirred up by the campaign. But in the Left Bank neighborhood where I am staying, it seemed to be just an ordinary Sunday night.

Sarkozy, who took an impressive 31 percent of the vote, gave a typically polished performance in an appearance before his supporters. Royal, by contrast, managed to turn what should have been a triumphant night—given concerns that she might not even make the runoff, the fact that she took just over a quarter of the ballots cast was no small victory—into a minor debacle. For one thing, she inexplicably waited two hours before addressing her supporters, a delay that left French TV commentators baffled. Even more baffling, though, was her tense, wooden delivery. There was no conviction in her words, and one had the impression that if a gust of wind blew away her written remarks, sparks would have started shooting out of her head. Her partner, Socialist Party leader François Hollande, was in a TV studio in Paris watching her speech, and he looked distinctly unimpressed, something the network anchor was quick to point out. Throughout the campaign, Royal’s biggest hurdle has been overcoming doubts about her command of details and her fitness to be president. Far from allaying those concerns, her speech Sunday night reinforced them.

But though conservative candidates took a combined 60 percent of the vote Sunday, and an instant poll Sunday night had Sarkozy leading Royal by eight percentage points, the outcome of the second round, scheduled for May 6, is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. While Royal has given voters reason to doubt her competence, Sarkozy’s problem is that he seems too competent—that he will stop at nothing to get his way. From the many conversations I’ve had with people regarding the election (and, no, there wasn’t a cabdriver among them, I’m pleased to report), it is clear that Sarkozy inflames his enemies more than he excites his supporters. I met lots of people who were planning to vote for Sarkozy, but none seemed particularly fond of the man or inspired by him. There’s not a lot that’s likable or inspiring about him. He’s a pugnacious figure who smiles through clenched teeth and who appears to have had his eyes on the Élysée Palace from the time he left the womb. To most of his supporters, it seems, Sarkozy is simply the bitter pill that has to be swallowed if France is to be cured of its malaise.

By contrast, those opposed to Sarkozy tend to bristle with emotion: They are terrified of him. They see him as a human battering ram who has little regard for civil liberties, opposing opinions, and other conventions of democratic rule. Sarkozy’s authoritarian streak has earned him comparisons to Rudy Giuliani, and there is something to the analogy (right down to the marital woes that both men have experienced). There may not be enough of an anti-Sarko vote to derail him at this point, but it is probably strong enough to make for a narrow margin of victory on May 6 and to deprive him of a convincing mandate. And if a victorious Sarkozy pursues the draconian reforms he has pledged to institute, he will face a mobilized, energized opposition that could make the next few years hellish for both him and for France.