There was a prevailing sense yesterday that the presidency of France was François Hollande's to lose. The incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, had just notched up too many firsts of the wrong sort in Sunday's election to recover. He entered the race as the most unpopular president France had known; he emerged from the first round as the only sitting president to be beaten into second place. He now faces the prospect of becoming the first one-term president since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing – with whom he shares his centre-right politics and a penchant for hobnobbing with the stars.
But the arithmetic is by no means as cut and dried as, say, the French left and the Hollande camp in particular seemed to be claiming on the frantic morning after the night before. Of course, they need to keep up morale for the next two weeks, and creating a sense of inevitability is one way to do that. But Mr Sarkozy, as his pugnacious response to defeat showed, is not one to accept that the game is lost until the last vote has been cast. And the 80 per cent turn-out showed that France is by no means as disengaged from politics as was forecast. However unhappy they are with the economy, the state of France, and their own lives, people still want a say in who enters the Elysée next time.
Nor do the first-round numbers by themselves make a Sarkozy victory impossible. For all the President's poor opinion poll ratings, the margin of his defeat by Mr Hollande was less than two percentage points. And the disappointing 11 per cent won by the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – disappointing to his supporters, that is – will not take the Socialist to 50 per cent, even with the Greens. In fact, the outcome depends on two imponderables. The first is whether the centrist, François Bayrou, makes a recommendation to his first-round supporters about how to vote. He took a relatively modest, but pivotal, 9 per cent on Sunday. If he now tilts to the left, Mr Hollande wins.
But the biggest and most crucial imponderable is where the record 18 per cent of the vote won by the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, goes on 6 May. And that depends largely on where those votes came from. How many first-round Le Pen voters were motivated primarily by right-wing nationalist, xenophobic sentiments, and what proportion were fuelled by more general disenchantment with establishment policies, including those of Mr Sarkozy? The second group are likely to vote, if at all, for Mr Hollande. The first group could speed Mr Sarkozy back to power.
As Mr Sarkozy well knows. Speaking in Paris on Sunday night, he set out to court the National Front voters with almost indecent haste – immigration, border security and keeping jobs at home, he said, would be his second-round priorities – while he also proposed no fewer than three televised debates. Experience of the hard choices required in high office is an entirely valid campaign pitch for Mr Sarkozy. Planting his tanks on Ms Le Pen's lawn, on the other hand, is as risky as it is ignoble, storing up unacceptable debts for the future.
This will nonetheless be a big temptation for Mr Sarkozy, given the size of the National Front vote and his fighter's nature. But it would taint his second term for ever. He would always be the President who sold his soul to remain in power. The refusal of Jacques Chirac to treat with the National Front on any terms was one of the more admirable features of his political career. His reward was to be re-elected on a landslide by a country shamed when Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the presidential run-off in 2002. Swept to power on a National Front campaign by proxy, Mr Sarkozy would embark on a second term that was the mirror image of his predecessor's. The next President of France must be elected on his own merit, or not at all.