The first round of the French presidential elections is about dividing the voters. The second round is about uniting them. That will be the key to the outcome from the run-off in two weeks’ time.

Neither Nicolas Sarkozy on the right nor Ségolène Royal on the left can afford to relax for an instant, with most polls suggesting that they are currently running neck-and-neck in a two-horse race. The decisive factor will now be which of the two is more successful in attracting voters from the centre ground.

Both of them succeeded in holding their traditional political ground better than their predecessors had done. Mr Sarkozy did better than Jacques Chirac, the outgoing president, in 2002, and Ms Royal did much better than Lionel Jospin, who came a poor third.

But now the two victors have only 14 days to persuade those who did not back them that they are capable of representing a broad church in the French presidency, not just a narrow political family.

Although Mr Sarkozy has emerged from the first round with a clear lead over Ms Royal, he may face the greater problems in widening his appeal, precisely because of his success.

He campaigned hard in the closing weeks of the first round to woo voters from the hard-right constituency of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front, and seems to have done very well on that score. Mr Le Pen’s result fell well short of his performance in 2002 and of his scores in recent opinion polls, suggesting that the voters did indeed turn back to Mr Sarkozy.

If he is going to win on May 6, Mr Sarkozy not only has to attract the remaining votes of the far right, but he also has to pick up at least half of the supporters of Mr François Bayrou, of the centrist Union of French Democracy. Indeed, Mr Bayrou may well hold the key to the final outcome, because his voters are the swing constituency for which both contenders must contend.

Ms Royal can expect to pick up most of the votes on the left, where Mr Sarkozy is seen as a dangerous and divisive figure. The challenge for her is whether she can present herself as presidential and experienced enough to win the centre ground from the favourite.

Her ambition will clearly be to unite the voters who are scared by the front-runner, and are prepared to vote “anything but Sarkozy”. At one stage in the campaign that nearly cost her second place, when it looked as if Mr Bayrou, and not Ms Royal, was the more likely to defeat Mr Sarkozy in the end. But Mr Bayrou was not dynamic enough to persuade voters of the left that he represented the best alternative for the second round.

Mr Le Pen’s relatively poor performance suggests that the National Front leader, at 78, has finally run out of steam, although he may well claim that all the other candidates were forced to pick up some of his anti-immigration and law-and-order themes.

Mr Bayrou, on the other hand, has shown that many French voters do want less Punch-and-Judy politics. They will still have a chance to express that view in the National Assembly elections in June – for the make-up of the French parliament, rather than the politics of the president, will decide who forms the next government.

The outcome could be cohabitation – a centre-left parliament with a rightwing president, or a rightwing parliament with a leftwing president.

French voters are still volatile and relatively undecided but there was a huge turn-out. They want both change and security. They want new leadership, but they do not appear to want a landslide victory.

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