Both Nicholas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal promised a break with the past in a bid to win over an electorate that has grown distrustful of the establishment.
Both saw off challengers to make it to the second round. But what will the success of either candidate mean for France’s future?
Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at France’s Institute for International Relations, and John Thornhill, the FT’s European Edition Editor, answer your questions about the first round of the French presidential election.
Q: With a poor showing in the first round and the retirement of its leader on the cards, what lies in store for the Front National?
John Thornhill: The National Front’s appeal is as a protest party. Its future will depend on whether French voters still think they have much to protest about. Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, was very prominent in the latest campaign and could give the NF a longer lease of life. But Sarkozy’s determination to tackle the issues of immigration and national identity has evidently weakened the NF’s appeal.
Q: Since Hubert Vedrine, what has changed in France? Is Segolene Royal well placed to get the European Central Bank to lower its interest rate so that France can compete against the Chinese? Would this help stop or slow down outsourcing? Or is she looking to help French exports by devaluing the euro?
Roland Baker, Luton, Bedfordshire, Angleterre
John Thornhill: Royal has no chance of persuading the ECB to lower its interest rates. Indeed political pressure on the ECB is only likely to make the bank more dogged in defence of its anti-inflationary mandate. Besides, a one percentage point difference in eurozone interest rates is not going to alter the competitiveness of France relative to that of China. Only supply-side reforms and higher levels of investment are going to do that.
Q: Will whoever wins the second round also lead their party to victory in the June legislative elections? Can France cope with a full-term cohabitation?
Stanley Pignal, London
Dominique Moïsi: The French tend to be legitimist. They will want to give a majority in the national assembly to their new president. The key issue will be the forces of the Third Man Bayrou. Where will they be?
John Thornhill: It is probable that whoever wins the presidential election will carry parliament too. Voters are looking for a president who can reform France, not one who will be constantly bickering with an opposition government.
Q: Can Mr Bayrou have enough sway to direct his share of the first round vote to either Sarko or Sego?
John Thornhill: Bayrou will announce his position on Wednesday. Royal will be desperately hoping for an endorsement, although this seems improbable. Without the support of most of Bayrou’s voters her chances in the second round look thin. However, as he has himself made clear, he does not have a block of votes that he can simply give to anyone. Opinion polls suggest that Bayrou’s voters would split fairly evenly between Sarkozy and Royal.
Dominique Moïsi: The answer is clearly no, and he will not tell them to vote either for the right or the left. His ambiguous silence is key to the birth tomorrow of his new political party
Q: What effect will the new president have on France’s position in the EU? France used to be at the heart of the EU, but lately it seems to have grown cooler on Europe. Royal has said she would put any rewritten version of the EU constitution to another referendum; Sarkozy has said he doesn’t want Turkey to join the EU, both have shown protectionist instincts as well as a tendency to blame the EU for France’s economic woes.
Caroline Knight, UK
Dominique Moïsi: Europe is waiting for a new French President, with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Whoever comes next will be seen as a welcome change, but do not expect too much, both candidates belong to a post-european generation
John Thornhill: The next French president will largely determine the future of the EU. If the next president fails to reignite French enthusiasm for Europe then the EU will have a bleak future. A second No in a referendum on a revised constitution would be massively damaging to the EU. That is why Sarkozy has been pushing the idea of a mini-treaty that could be ratified by parliament. As you say, both candidates would push the EU to be more protectionist, raising the prospect of a clash between France and the more liberal northern European countries.
Q: I think the French people are ready for a change but Segolene Royal seems to be all style and no substance. If she wins the election, will the French be appointing the equivalent of David Cameron?
Diane Wilson, UK
John Thornhill: That is a loaded question on so many different levels. You can certainly say that Royal - like Cameron - is a modern politician who believes that the medium very often is the message. Both leaders are highly sensitive to questions of image and presentation.
Both are - to some degree - saying: “I am their leader, I must follow them.” In different ways, they are perhaps both “heirs of Blair.” But to the extent that ideology matters, the two are clearly very different. Royal is a politician of the left, while Cameron is a politician of the right. In both cases I suspect their ideological roots go a lot deeper than their public images suggest.
Dominique Moïsi: You are perfectly right, she does lack Gravitas, but she is a determined piece of steel. Even if she does not get in this time, she wants to win in five years time, like Mitterrand did before her. She is still very young.
Q: During his post election speech, Sarkozy introduced the idea of creating an economic and social environment in which the French dream can be achieved. Do you believe the Anglo-Saxon press and business communities will be supportive of Sarkozy, should he be elected, in achieving his ambitious goals or can we expect a continuation of the historical animosity between French and Anglo-Saxon elite?
Sarkozy has been widely criticised in France for praising American and British economies and society. Will this pay off with co-operation and openings/concessions by the Americans/British to the French in crucial industries such as energy and military?
Daniel Karlsson, Madrid, Spain
John Thornhill: The ”Anglo-Saxon” press and business community - if one can generalise - do think more favourably of Sarkozy than Royal because they respond to his pro-business agenda and Atlanticist rhetoric. But Sarkozy is more French, than liberal (in an economic sense). He is therefore bound to clash with the UK government over European competition and trade policy. I don’t think that US or British companies should expect any favours from Sarkozy, because he is more positive about the US and the UK than President Jacques Chirac has been. Sarkozy will be ferocious in defence of French national interests as he sees them.
Dominique Moïsi: Sarkozy will be closer to the Anglo-Saxon view of the world, but do not expect him to behave as a pure liberal, he is not. The more the western press will support him in his attempt to liberalize France, the more difficult it may become for him. Industrial deals will depend more of industrial interest than of political calculus.
Q: If Sarkozy does get in, do the panel expect much to change? As I can see, much will stay the same.
Peter Frost, Rotterdam, Holland
John Thornhill: That is the 64,000 euro question. Many observers suggest that Sarkozy is a “baby-Chirac”. During this election campaign, Sarkozy has toned down his economically liberal rhetoric, suggesting he wants a “rupture” with past policies, and turned up the volume on “social Gaullism,” the belief that no section of society can be left by the roadside. However, he has also said that - if elected - he will move very quickly to start transforming France in his first 100 days. My best guess is that he will be entirely opportunistic, advancing as fast as the street allows him.
Dominique Moïsi: No there will be real change if Sarkozy comes to power. The French are ready for structural changes. They are aware their country runs the risk of decline, and are willing to accept some painful but necessary reforms.
Q: Would it be possible to see more of the breakdown on the election in terms of demographics? Le Pen heartland falls to tough talk, by Delphine Strauss, confuses things slightly, when she says: “Unsurprisingly, 55 per cent of the highest earners backed Mr Sarkozy, as did 38 per cent of company bosses and liberal professionals.” Who did the other 45per cent of highest earners, and 62per cent of co bosses liberal professionals vote for? Have the professional classes voted for the left in large numbers, or gone to the centre?
Paul Duggan, Dublin, Ireland
Dominique Moïsi: In demographic terms older people tend to vote for Sarkozy, younger ones for Royal. There is a popular vote for Sarkozy and an elite vote for Royal and Bayrou. The key issue is of course of an ideological nature and it centers around the word liberalism.The Left is liberal in social, and cultural terms and conservative in economic terms, the Right is just the reverse. Votes from the Center will have to give priority to one of the two dimension of the word liberal. My assumption is that economy will prevail and therefore Sarkozy will win.
Q: As part of the unofficial welcoming committee for Le Grande Charles at the Liberation of Paris, and a frequent traveller and worker to France. I am still amazed at the lack of co-operation by French policymakers when the public is so endearing to us. Why?
E. Wynn, US
John Thornhill: French policy makers’ differences with the US are attributable to many reasons. Partly, it reflects genuine policy differences - as with Iraq. Partly, it reflects a determination to shout about France’s identity in the world, and to distinguish France, and Europe, from the US. Partly, no doubt, it also reflects envy that the US has in some senses replaced France as the world’s exceptional nation.
But it should be stressed that on many subjects - the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan, peace in the Middle East - France and the US co-operate closely. And you are right to suggest that many French people are instinctively open to US visitors and American culture.
Dominique Moïsi: It is not popular in France for politicians to sound too close to the United States. In reality the French are quite schyzophrenic about the U.S. On the one hand they are still seen as a model of flexibility and dynamism. On the other hand they appear more and more as a counter model, especially since Bush came to power.
Q: Which of the two main candidates do you think has the best chance of uniting the French people with policies that might be broadly acceptable?
Marla Dial, Austin, US
John Thornhill: There is no doubt that Sarkozy is a highly controversial candidate. He inspires as much public concern as he generates political warmth.
However, he has been trying to convince voters that he has changed and can rally the French people. He says he wants to be the president of all French people, not just the leader of a political party or a clan. Royal is undoubtedly the more consensual candidate because she is promising less radical change.
Dominique Moïsi: Both candidates can unite the French people. The French are at the same time anxious for change and afraid of it. The next President will have to demonstrate at the same time determination, inspiration with a good dose of reassurance. Sarkozy would behave as a compassionate conservative, Royal as an enlightened social democrat.
Q: Is France ready to have a women as president? And as Mr Le Pen received only 10.44 per cent of the vote, are those who voted for him likely to ensure Sarkozy wins the race, or does Royal still stand a chance in the second round?
Gilbert, Los Angeles, US
Dominique Moïsi: The French are ready to have a woman President, but maybe not this one. Most Le Pen voters will go for Sarkozy and Royal chances do exist but are slim. Mathematically she is likely to lose.
John Thornhill: France is ready to have a female president, but voters will not support a candidate solely on the basis of gender. Some opinion polls suggest that, if anything, it could even be an advantage to be a female candidate. However, the character of the individual and the nature of their policies will be more decisive factors in these elections.
As for Le Pen’s voters, most of them would seem likely to back Sarkozy in the second round giving him a strong advantage over Royal. But Royal is clearly hoping that Sarkozy’s flirtation with the National Front voters will backfire, deterring as many voters as it attracts. She still has a chance of winning if she can turn the second round into an anti-Sarkozy referendum and convince voters that he is a danger for France.