The French extreme-Right leader Marine Le Pen has upset the apple cart in the first round of the French presidential poll by winning an astonishing 17.90 per cent of the vote, a feat never achieved by a National Front candidate before.

Her hate rhetoric targeting Muslims, foreigners, and the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, her calls for protectionist measures that would verge on the autarchic, appear to have seduced a section of the French population afraid of globalisation and haunted by the spectre of falling incomes, joblessness and a “dilution” of French culture by foreign influences.

Even her father, the legendary loud mouth and master of insults Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in the 2002 poll managed to eliminate Socialist candidate Lional Jospin, could never reach the same heights.

By virtue of her strong showing Ms. Le Pen is in a position to swing the second round run-off between the two frontrunners, Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande either way — the election in fact is hers to give or deny.

Ms. Le Pen's near 18 per cent makes a massive difference because there are still two weeks left before the final vote on May 6, during which a recomposition of the political landscape is entirely possible and because, as official results show, the margin of votes separating Mr. Holland (28.63 per cent) and Mr. Sarkozy (27.18 per cent) is very slim indeed.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the extreme-Left candidate won a disappointing 11.1 per cent followed by centrist Francois Bayrou with 9.3 per cent.

While Mr. Hollande has a clear advantage — almost all the votes of the Left wing candidates totalling 16.5 per cent — are likely to go to him in the second round, the intentions of Ms. Le Pen and the centrist Mr. Bayrou who between them command 27 per cent of the vote are still unclear.

“Ms Le Pen will be reluctant to openly ask her supporter to transfer their votes to Sarkozy because she has bigger political ambitions. She wants to become the leader of the opposition and let's not forget that Legislative polls follow in June. If she calls on her voters to back Sarkozy, where does that leave her in the assembly polls a month later? She will have lost her independence in return for what? She's not interested in a ministerial post in a Sarkozy Cabinet!” Sylvie Braibant, a commentator at TV5monde told The Hindu.

However, most political observers believe that diehard extreme-Right voters will find a Leftist government unpalatable and will cross over to the Sarkozy camp. The incumbent could, therefore, expect about 60 per cent of Ms. Le Pen's votes to go to him.

A deal between Mr. Sarkozy and the Right-leaning centrist, Francois Bayrou, who is a practising Catholic, cannot be ruled out and there are rumours that he is considering a prime ministerial post in exchange for his support.

Mr. Sarkozy has already begun wooing extreme-Right voters. In his very first speech he used four terms that indicate he has every intention of going after every last one of Ms. Le Pen's voters: immigration, security, closing frontiers and delocalisation of industries.

But Mr. Sarkozy finds himself caught in a cleft stick. If he goes too close to the extreme-Right he upsets good thinking Catholic centrists like Mr. Bayrou and if he woos the latter's voters too assiduously, National Front voters think he is not tough enough. This halfway house, this back and forth between the centre and the extreme-Right, has weighed down his campaign, robbed it of coherence.

But Mr. Hollande cannot afford to be complacent. The die is not cast and if both the centrists and the National Front opt for Mr. Sarkozy — for them, anything's better than the Left — he could yet lose an election which is certainly within his grasp.

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