France divides... and Europe pays the price

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Hollande is ahead, but whoever wins there will be consequences

Paris

The new – or maybe the old – French president who is elected today will inherit a country more poisonously divided than at any time since the student and worker revolts of May 1968.

The 45,000,000 French voters face a choice between the soothingly pragmatic leader of a largely unreconstructed left and a President who has appealed shamelessly to the latent nationalist passions and racial prejudices of the French bourgeoisie and white working class.

Although the final opinion polls suggest a four- to seven-point victory for the Socialist challenger, François Hollande, his lead has plunged dramatically in the past six days. President Nicolas Sarkozy, despite his apparent "defeat" in a live TV debate on Wednesday, believes that there will be a "razor's edge" result when polls close at 8pm (7pm BST) tonight.

Mr Hollande insists that this is a European as well as a French election. His victory, he says, would rescue the floundering European Union from its German-imposed obsession with austerity and create new growth and hope through EU-wide capital investment schemes.

Critics say that it might also mark the beginning of a relaxation of fiscal discipline within the eurozone, which would encourage new market speculation and push the euro even closer to the abyss.

At home, a President Hollande would have to manage high unemployment, a high deficit and high debt, despite an unwillingness, on both right and left, to reform an often wasteful French state. But he will also inherit a country that is deeply fractured between a newly radicalised right and an immobile left; between outward-looking cities and anxious and struggling rural areas; and between young and old.

A failed Hollande presidency might open a boulevard for the ultra-nationalist, populist right in France in 2017. A successful Hollande presidency could shift the pattern of European politics towards the centre-left with intriguing implications for Britain and also Germany. How, for instance, would David Cameron vote in Brussels later this year on a Hollande-inspired EU "growth pact", which would run counter to his own austerity-led approach in Britain?

A victory against the odds for President Sarkozy today would also have profound implications beyond the borders of France. In an attempt to seduce the 17.9 per cent who voted far right in the first round of the election last month, the President has campaigned for the restoration of internal EU borders for migrants, and for some trade, but also for the recreation, in effect, of national frontiers of the mind.

In doing so, he has barged though a political frontier that no other French centre-right leader – let alone an incumbent president – has dared to cross since the Second World War. At a time when white-collar populism is rising throughout the EU, Mr Sarkozy has finally abandoned the muddled Europeanism and tolerance that characterised Jacques Chirac's time in office and made scarcely coded appeals to racial and religious intolerance and prejudice.

Some of Mr Sarkozy's campaign rhetoric – insisting falsely that 700 mosques have appealed to Muslims to vote for Mr Hollande – might have come directly from the smear tactics of the French, Dutch or Austrian far right.

The President's official second-round TV message includes a shot of a customs sign, written in French and Arabic. Why Arabic? In the rest of the clip, Mr Sarkozy claims to be the only man who can unite French people of all races and religions. But the entire clip revolves around that brief shot of the customs sign, with its scarcely subliminal message: "I am the man who will stop a Muslim and Arab take-over of France."

If Mr Sarkozy is re-elected after such a campaign, there will be no reason to fear a future tide of intolerant, ultra-nationalist populism in Europe. It will already be here.

It is difficult to say how much of the President's poll recovery in the past week is a direct result of his hardened rhetoric. Few people believed that Mr Hollande would retain all of the 10-point lead that he held after the first round on 22 April. Most French presidential elections are decided by six points or fewer.

But Mr Sarkozy's second-round campaign does seem finally to have reversed the dynamics of an election that until now had been mostly defined by his personal unpopularity on both the left and part of the right.

The new enthusiasm, or tolerance, for the President has come not so much among the 6,400,000 people who voted for the far right and Marine Le Pen on 22 April. The small print of opinion polls suggests that Mr Sarkozy's rise is largely based on a rekindled enthusiasm among his own centre-right voters who failed to turn out in their usual numbers in the first round.

This is partly a tribal reaction in the French bourgeoisie to the looming threat of a Socialist president. But it must also be a response to Mr Sarkozy's rhetoric. Many supporters of the President's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) are as intolerant on racial and religious subjects as National Front voters.

In an election campaign in which numbers have been used like truncheons by both sides, there was one especially disturbing statistic between the rounds. More than 60 per cent of voters for Mr Sarkozy's party said they supported political alliances between the centre-right UMP and the far-right National Front.

Former president Jacques Chirac and other centre-right leaders courageously refused such alliances. They also, mostly, refused to use NF themes and rhetoric. Mr Sarkozy is still refusing the alliances but he has hijacked – and in some cases hardened – far-right language on the threat to France's national identity from such menacing enemies as halal meat in school canteens and special hours for women in swimming pools.

He has skilfully exploited Mr Hollande's innocuous plan to give local votes to long-established foreign citizens by suggesting that this will lead to "tribal" control of town halls. As Mr Hollande pointed out in Wednesday's TV debate, there are already millions of French Muslims who have the vote. Why should votes for a few long-established foreigners, not all of them Muslim, make any difference?

It has been a long, and in many ways dispiriting, campaign, on the left as well as on the right. French voters often complain that politicians will not confront the country's real problems. But any politician who has attempted to talk blood, sweat and tears to the electorate in the past three months has struggled in the polls.

President Sarkozy started by suggesting that France should work harder for less, with higher VAT, just like Germany. That did not go down very well. The centrist candidate François Bayrou was the only person to dare to use use words such as "effort" and "pain". He scored less than 10 per cent of the vote on 22 April. On the left, voters have rallied around Mr Hollande's vague programme of fiscal discipline in France and growth programmes for Europe. There will be spending cuts, he says, but he avoids saying where the axe will fall.

Many left-wing voters – more than actually voted for him in the end – preferred the sonorous rhetoric of the protectionist, anti-capitalist, anti-European candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mr Hollande may well be elected today but he will have no clear mandate for the many tough decisions that lie ahead. If Mr Sarkozy is elected, he will face the task of uniting a country that, thanks to his cynical efforts, is as split as it was in 1944.

Carla vs Valerie

If Valérie Trierweiler becomes "First Girlfiend" with a François Hollande victory today, she will have much to thank Carla Bruni for. The only pop-singing Première Dame in French history has not been a very energetic official consort for the President in the four years since their marriage. But she has changed the unwritten rules of the game.

No French first lady before Bruni has managed to pursue her own career or maintain so successfully a separate public identity. Ms Trierweiler, 46, is a TV and magazine journalist and twice-divorced mother of three. She insists that, if Mr Hollande wins, she will continue to work as TV interviewer.

That would have seemed inappropriate a few years ago. Now it will pass almost without comment. The big question in the French glossy magazines is: "If elected, will François marry Valérie?" There are only 10 days between the election and the handover of power. Ms Trierweiler, an elegant, somewhat frosty-seeming woman, will start off at least as First Girlfriend.

Beyond that, the couple have refused to discuss their plans. Mr Hollande, 57, famously lived for 25 years with Ségolène Royal, the unsuccessful Socialist candidate in 2007. They have four children together but never got married – by her choice rather than his.

Mr Hollande's relationship with Ms Trierweiler began in 2005 but was kept hidden until just after Ms Royal's 2007 defeat. He decided not to run for president that year partly because he feared that the affair with Ms Trierweiler would be exposed. Ms Royal, who knew all about it, ran partly, it is said, to get her own back on her long-time partner.

What kind of person is Valérie Trierweiler? Acquaintances say that her apparent frostiness is a kind of shyness – despite her long experience as a political and cultural interviewer.

The relationship between François and Valérie is very lovey-dovey. Campaign officials reveal that when Valérie phones François on his mobile phone, the screen lights up with the words "mon amour" (my love).

She has been a constant presence in the campaign (far more so than Bruni) but has played no obvious political role. President Sarkozy criticised her presence in March at a memorial service for French paratroopers murdered by the Toulouse killer Mohamed Merah. But Mr Sarkozy offered a public apology when Lionnel Luca, one of the stupider and more right-wing politicians in his party, referred to her last month as "Valérie Rottweiler".

John Lichfield

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss