France's Je Ne Sais Quoi Elections

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On Friday night, two days before the polls close in Sunday's first round of balloting in the most significant presidential election in a generation, France entered political purdah. Suddenly, the candidate speeches and poll results that have been a febrile mainstay of French news over the last six months simply stopped, in accordance with the law. That left the millions of voters who declared themselves undecided in the final week of the campaign — an astounding 40% of the electorate, according to recent polls — facing a quiet weekend to make up their minds free of media influence. Still, their friends and families, of whatever political stripe, will be hectoring them with a now familiar imprecation: to cast a vote utile — a useful vote.

It's the Socialists, haunted by the trauma of 2002, who would most like to tattoo that phrase onto the conscience of left-wing voters. In the first that year, enough voters backed far-left and ecologist candidates on the assumption that they would have a second-round opportunity to ensure that Socialist Lionel Jospin beat out incumbent President Jacques Chirac, to cost the Socialists a place in the second round: Instead, Chirac faced the far-right National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen in the run-off, putting many voters for whom Jospin had not been sufficiently left-wing into the incongruous position of having to vote for the center-right Chirac in order to keep out Le Pen.

Segolene Royal, this year's Socialist contender, is running second in the polls behind conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy of Chirac's Union for a Popular Majority (UMP). Striking a pose of tranquility and confidence, she never explicitly invokes the prospect of a repeat of her party's ignoble 2002 debacle. But her partner, Socialist Party Secretary Francois Hollande, put it bluntly a few days ago: "If the left is to be position to rule the country, people have to vote for Royal in the first round."

This time, the Socialists are less concerned with the six far-left candidates, none of whom is polling as strongly as in 2002, than they are by the challenge of Francois Bayrou, the insurgent centrist whose spike in the polls since January comes largely from center-left voters disappointed with Royal's often vague, confused and gaffe-prone campaign. Pollsters had expected that Bayrou's pre-spring bloom would have withered by now — after all, his centrist Union for a Democratic France (UDF) has only 5% of the seats in the National Assembly. Instead, he has found real traction with his challenge to the endless left-right battle that, he says, has locked French politics into an ideological echo-chamber. Most polls give Bayrou 19% of the vote, putting Royal's lead over him well within the margin of error.

Bayrou has a potent vote utile argument of his own: Polls regularly show that he would have a better chance than Royal would have of beating Sarkozy in the head-to-head second round on May 6. His appeal has prompted several former Socialist ministers to break rank and urge their party to promise to govern in coalition with the centrists, prompting outrage from party leaders. But if Royal does make it into the second round, their tune could quickly change.

For the left, the very definition of a vote utile is one that ensures defeat for Sarkozy, whose combative approach to governing has divided the French electorate on terms familiar to the last two U.S. presidents. Still, the former Interior Minister has consistently, although narrowly, led the polls all year, and has allowed his lieutenants to begin sketching plans for government as if their victory were assumed. But Sarkozy, too, faces a balancing act. Maintaining his two- to four-point lead over Royal depends on him continuing to attract at least some of the almost 17% of French voters who backed Le Pen in 2002. It is to secure their votes that Sarkozy has made calls for a clampdown on immigration and emphasis on France's national identity and Christian roots a centerpiece of his campaign.

The curmudgeonly 79-year-old Le Pen, however, still appears to attract the bulk of the anti-immigration vote, running fourth with 14% of the vote (five points behind Bayrou). He can't win, of course, but his persistent appeal shows that for part of the French electorate, the most utile vote remains one that declares a pox on the French political class as a whole.