Last night's results from France's first round of voting moved Socialist presidential hopeful Francois Hollande one big step closer to the Élysée Palace. After winning more votes than President Sarkozy in this round, a poll this morning predicted that the run-off vote between the two top candidates, on May 6th, will see Hollande beat Sarkozy by a comfortable 8% margin.
But the most startling news from last night is the historic gains made by the anti-immigrant National Front party, which claimed over 18% of the vote. Even when leader Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, came second in the shock result of 2002, he got less than 17%. Le Pen's "triumph" is all the more significant because 48% of her voters were aged between 25 and 44 years old. This is a major change in the chemistry of France: with the economic crisis fuelling high youth unemployment, many young people are growing increasingly disillusioned with mainstream politics. (More on this from AFP.)
Even if elected, Hollande faces a tough time ahead: will economic pressures force reality checks on his promises to boost spending and heavily tax the rich? Last night's result certainly carried him closer to the luxury of that dilemma. While the polls say that votes for other left-leaning candidates will largely transfer to Hollande in the next round, Sarkozy can't count on the support of the right in the same way. One of Marine Le Pen's advisers last night compared deciding between Sarkozy and Hollande to "choosing between the plague and cholera".
Further reading: Commentary on the results and the prospects for round two from celebrated French editor Christine Ockrent.