Exit polls for the first round in France's presidential election put centre-left candidate Francois Hollande ahead of the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. The official exit poll puts the Socialist Party candidate on 28.4% and Sarkozy on 25.5%.
The ousting of Sarkozy - one of the political figures most strongly associated with the mantra of ever-deeper cuts and privatisation - will be a setback for the Right across Europe. He has championed the interests of the bankers and the rich, pursuing a neo-liberal agenda. Everyone who is opposed to austerity wants to see the back of him.
Marine Le Pen, the far right's candidate, is on 20%, with left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon predicted to take 11.7% and the centrist candidate Bayrou on 8.5%. Le Pen's vote may turn out to be a little lower - one exit poll puts her on 18.2% - but it is somewhat higher than many commentators anticipated.
The first round of voting determines which two candidates will go through to the second round on 6 May. A combined vote of around 45% for the two major right-wing candidates, as suggested by the exit polls, will raise Sarkozy's hopes of re-election.
Hollande, however, remains the favourite to win. Every poll for months has suggested he'll win the second round, against the backdrop of the current president's growing unpopularity. It would also be wrong to assume that all Le Pen voters will switch to Sarkozy.
It appears that Le Pen's vote has been boosted by the widespread disenchantment with Sarkozy's government. It is nonethless worrying that a fascist candidate - however superficially 'detoxified' - should win nearly one in five of the popular vote on a high turnout of around 80%.
The Le Pen vote reflects a mix of factors, including the prevalence of Islamophobia. The aftermath of the Toulouse killings was exploited to bolster her attacks on multiculturalism. This context almost certainly influenced the scale of her vote. The wider European far right will be inspired by the result, which indicates the potential for disaffection, at a time of economic crisis, to be channelled in a dangerous direction.
Melenchon's vote will be disappointing for many activists, but it is substantially better than the polls suggested even six months ago. His broad left-wing campaign developed tremendous momentum and galavanised thousands of activists, many of them politically active for the first time. He inspires millions of working class people with implacable opposition to cuts, NATO's wars and Islamophobia - and by passionately advocating an alternative political vision.
Melenchon's vote is clearly good enough to justify hopes of developing a much stronger French left out of this election. Just as important here is the spectacular growth - in the last few months - of activist networks around the election campaign.
The campaign also had the effect of pulling Hollande at least slightly to the left, who in himself offers little in the way of an alternative to the pro-austerity orthodoxy dominating Europe. An eventual Hollande victory could mark a turning of the tide in European electoral politics - 21 out of 27 European Union countries currently have right-wing parties in office (and that's without including Italy and Greece).
The real challenge for left-wing activists will be mounting pressure on Hollande - assuming he is elected - to break from austerity. That is a huge task, but the dynamic and popular campaign around Melenchon has strengthened the basis for a mass movement - on the streets and in the workplaces - to confront austerity.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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