Like all observers, I was astonished by the extent of voter mobilization. In the run-up to the election, 3.3 million new voters were added to the rolls. More impressive yet, fully 84% of registered voters made it to their polling stations (the highest figure since 1965) compared with roughly 71% five years ago. As an American, itâ€™s hard not to envy such numbers. The traumatic memory of the 2002 presidential elections did much to generate this surge in voter participation. On April 21st, 2002, Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen beat out Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin for a slot in the second round of voting. Five years later, many voters seem to have decided that it would be too dangerous to stay home.
Which leads to my second observation: if yesterdayâ€™s election was a referendum on Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was one which Le Pen massively lost. Heading into the election on a wave of confidence, the Front National suffered what one supporter referred to as a â€?cruel and major defeatâ€?, down 6 points and a million votes from its 2002 performance.
Le Penâ€™s loss was Sarkozyâ€™s gain. As I noted in an earlier post, containing the FN has been central to Sarkozyâ€™s electoral strategy from the outset. This strategy seems to have paid off, with a number of FN strongholds (Marseille, Alsace) going over to the UMP candidate.
What does all this mean from a restrictionist perspective? At the center of Sarkozyâ€™s platform are a number of sensible and long overdue measures aiming to stabilize and reduce immigration to the country, including annual ceilings by category, â€?selectiveâ€? recruitment of immigrants and a requirement that candidates know French before being granted residency permits. And yet while Sarkozy looks good on paper, his actual record, including two years as Minister of the Interior, has led many on the right to question whether his supposedly get-tough stance on immigration is anything more than an electoral ploy.
Yesterdayâ€™s results have left the French far right in disarray, even as some of its signature positions have gone mainstream in the person of Nicolas Sarkozy. But it would be too early to claim even discursive victory. Having eliminated the threat to his right, the next two weeks may reveal a very different Sarkozy as he competes for control of the center with S?©gol?¨ne Royal.