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Mary Dejevsky: Don't second-guess French voters

It is fashionable to lament the death of politics, and the lacklustre campaigns waged in many of our cities for yesterday's local elections did little to contradict that. Anyone looking for signs of political life in recent weeks, however, had only to look across the Channel to rediscover politics, red in tooth and claw.

French voters have flocked miles to rallies, where they have chanted and barracked and roared. The internet and Twittersphere have been abuzz. And the whole invigorating process culminated in a rip-roaring television debate on Wednesday evening that was bellicose and stuffed with political argument to the point where it overran its allotted time by almost an hour.

No one who watched even a fraction of it could doubt that French voters, who go to the polls on Sunday, have a stark choice. Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande espouse different policies; they are different personalities, and they were not play-acting on Wednesday: they really loathe each other.

Outside France, however, this epic duel has already been framed according to certain assumptions – assuptions that are not necessarily correct. So prevalent have they become, however, that they risk skewing the international response, when the victor's face appears on French TV screens on Sunday night.

The first assumption is that Sarkozy, the incumbent President, is certain to lose. It is true that all opinion polls on the eve of the debate had him trailing the Socialist, Hollande, by around six points (47 to 53 per cent), and that six points is a lot to make up with very little time to do it. But some caveats are in order. Marine Le Pen's almost 18 per cent of the first-round vote has to go somewhere. The French are conscientious voters (as witnessed by the 80 per cent turnout on 22 April), and by no means all will follow Le Pen in leaving their ballot paper blank. Not all those votes will go to Sarkozy, but some will.

Add to this the slight narrowing of the polls in the past week, and the fact that the full impact of the debate will be felt only in the actual vote. Sarkozy failed to land the killer blow; he came across as aggressive, ill-tempered and self-absorbed. But such attributes will not necessarily be condemned by voters craving a President who will stand up for France. Sarkozy is a fighter, and it is not over yet.

The second assumption is that, if Hollande is France's next President, he will have to tack to the left to placate those who cast their first-round vote for the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But this neglects two realities. The first is that, while Mélenchon performed creditably, he did not make the breakthrough his campaigning charisma had suggested. The second is that the political complexion of France, as revealed by the first-round vote, still tends more to the right than to the left. That is the France that awaits the next President, whoever it turns out to be.

The third assumption outside France is that an Hollande victory would spell meltdown for the euro. Such thinking is based partly on the fact that Hollande is the Socialist (and so, it is supposed, the less fiscally responsible). It proceeds also from Hollande's emphasis on "growth" over "austerity", and from his election pledge to reopen the European Fiscal Stability Treaty.

But the logic of these arguments is questionable. Many imponderables – the Irish referendum, the Greek election, the Spanish economy – suggest the treaty may not be set in stone. The main reason why an Hollande victory will not trigger an immediate euro crisis, though, is that the financial markets have already anticipated such a result. The wobble, in so far as it happened, followed Hollande's first place on 22 April, and subsequent polls forecasting an easy second-round win. As for commitment to the European project, French Socialist leaders have been at least as communautaire as their Gaullist counterparts, and sometimes more willing to cede small pieces of national sovereignty to the common cause. Hollande will not break that particular mould.

The fourth assumption outside France is that Hollande's arrival at the Elysée would damage the Franco-German engine that effectively holds Europe together. The claim here is that Angela Merkel not only shares a centre-right worldview with Sarkozy, but has invested so much in a difficult personal relationship, that a new start with a Socialist leader would be worse.

But would Merkel really find Hollande a trickier proposition than Sarkozy? German and French leaders of different parties have often hit it off better than those of supposedly like political mind, while, character-wise, Merkel – cautious, solid and consensus-seeking – would seem to have more in common with Hollande than she ever had with Sarkozy. The big ideological divergence – growth versus austerity – might even become more bridgeable in their more compatible hands.

Which leads on to the fifth, and last, false assumption: that a second term for Sarkozy would mean more of the same, while his defeat would effect a break with the past of the sort he promised five years ago, but mostly failed to deliver. In fact, Sarkozy's failure illustrates the limited room for manoeuvre that any national leader has in straitened times, whatever their promises and ideology. At the same time, however, Europe's tolerance for unadulterated stringency seems to be shrinking, with a serious search on for ways of generating jobs, if not rapid growth, without busting the budget. And Germany, with its low unemployment and comparative social peace is the euro country that sets the standard here, too, as it does for living within one's means.

Sarkozy's stump speeches and debate answers show that he, no less in fact than the Socialist, Hollande, has been contemplating adjustments in the austerity/growth ratio. The upshot is that, whoever wins in France on Sunday, left or right, is probably destined to be –in the words of François Hollande's campaign slogan – the President of change.