French elections: Is it over for Sarkozy?

France's President and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy arrives on stage on 22 April 2012
Image caption Opinion polls taken on Sunday night are not favourable for Mr Sarkozy

After learning that he had come first in the vote, the best news for Francois Hollande came in the speech an hour later from the far-left's Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Addressing supporters outside Communist headquarters in Paris, Mr Melenchon urged them to vote Hollande on 6 May, "asking nothing in return".

In a single phrase, Mr Melenchon removed the biggest potential handicap to Hollande's second-round hopes.

Secure in the knowledge that Mr Melenchon's 3.8m voters will automatically switch to his camp, Mr Hollande had his left flank covered.

And so for the two weeks of the second round campaign, the Socialist candidate can now keep going as before: exuding confidence, consistency, and calm.

How different for President Sarkozy, who to have a chance on 6 May has to switch to an even higher setting his already white-hot levels of energy and ideas-generation.

Arithmetic and atmosphere

Image caption Francois Hollande, pictured, has already found support from far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon

The contrast will be telling - and not to the president's advantage.

Often in French presidential elections, the outcome is decided in the days that immediately follow the first round.

A mood sets in; polls show that candidate A is ahead of candidate B; and the country imperceptibly makes up its mind.

By the time round two comes along, the election of candidate A has come to seem inevitable, and the result is almost an anti-climax.

This could so easily be happening now. Arithmetic and atmosphere seem loaded against President Sarkozy.

As BFM TV's political editor Olivier Mazerolles repeated over and again on the election special on Sunday night, "Normalement c'est injouable pour Sarko!" - All things being equal, there's no way Sarko can win.

New battle

And yet.

As supporters of the president keep pointing out, the second round of a French election is a whole new battle.

In official campaigning for the first round, by law all 10 candidates were given equal air-time.

For the Sarkozy camp, this meant that there were nine candidates vying to say the worst possible things about the president.

It was an unfair arrangement, the Sarkozists argue, because the president's message was buried in the avalanche of hostility.

But that phase is over. Now it is a straight man-to-man contest against Francois Hollande - and Mr Sarkozy can start to come into his own.

The new phase also means that the campaign can start focusing on a proper comparison of programmes.

This again is something the Sarkozists believe they can turn to the president's advantage.

Hollande, they say, has been a master of vagueness and waffle. His skill lies in synthesizing other people's ideas, and that it is a recipe for inertia.

Now is the time for Hollande to be forced to defend the detail of his manifesto - and (in the eyes of the president's supporters) to be shown to be wanting.

This is the logic behind Mr Sarkozy's call for three candidate debates ahead of 6 May. He knows that this is the kind of forum where he can publicly outperform his rival.

Unfortunately for him, Mr Hollande will almost certainly only grant him one.

The far right factor

Image caption Nearly one in five voters chose far right candidate Marine Le Pen

But one other factor hangs over the second round campaign, whose implications no-one really understands.

This is the massive vote for Marine Le Pen.

The National Front leader easily won her goal of outperforming her father's best score of 16.8%.

Where 4.8m voters chose Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, some 6.3m voted for his daughter - giving her more than 18% of the total.

This is not particularly good news for Nicolas Sarkozy.

Many of these 6.3m would abstain or even vote for Mr Hollande rather than vote for a man they regard as having betrayed their trust.

Also, it is clearly in the interest of the National Front leadership that Mr Sarkozy should lose to Mr Hollande.

This because Marine Le Pen hopes that a Sarkozy defeat will lead to an implosion of his UMP party.

She then plans to relaunch the National Front under a new name, merging it with right-wing defectors from the UMP to become the main opposition to the ruling Socialists.

On the face of it then, Mr Sarkozy has little to gain from the far-right's success.

But there is something very unpredictable about the National Front electorate.

They are more and more numerous; they are increasingly assertive; and one thing they are not, is on the left.

That is why Le Pen's success was the one nasty after-taste from Hollande's first-round feast - reminding him that for all his success, the French electorate is more right-wing than he likes to think.

No refuge

Still, it would be a rash punter who staked much today on a Sarkozy win.

Much has been made in commentaries about how he is the first sitting president not to come top in the first round vote.

This is true, but in a way meaningless.

In 1988 President Mitterrand and in 2002 President Chirac were both in periods of "cohabitation" - in other words they were in office alongside prime ministers from the opposing political camp.

This allowed them to take a back seat from government, retreat into presidential splendour, and then pose as the opposition when the election came.

This is not an option that President Sarkozy ever had, or wanted.

From the start he acted more like a prime minister than a traditional, monarchical French president.

All very commendable, but this is the price: no refuge in difficult times behind the palatial walls of the Elysee.

Just the unforgiving voice of the voter.