Rather unusually these days, the pre-election opinion polls turned out to be accurate as the first round of the French presidential election saw Emmanuel Macron (23.9%) and Marine Le Pen (21.4%) progress to the final reckoning on 7 May.
There are many interesting points to discuss after the smoke of battle has cleared, the first being that the 'mainstream' parties have been entirely excluded from the second round of voting. The centre-right Republicans and the Socialists will now have to consider if and how they can regroup after this obvious and unprecedented disaster.
Fillon (19.9%) was, in the end, unable to recover after his campaign was disabled by financial scandal and his arrogant response to the ongoing investigation of his affairs. However, he did get himself back into serious contention in the final weeks and many voters respected his fortitude and resilience. Les Républicains are far from dead and they have enough experience and support in the country to get themselves back in the game over the next few years.
Hamon (6.3%) won fewer votes than expected and I suspect that he was squeezed by many natural socialist voters preferring Melenchon on the harder left and Macron on the centre-left. This means that there are still plenty of socialists in France, it's just that they no longer identify with the Socialist party as it is now. The best one can say for Hamon and his party is that the only way is up.
As for Melenchon (19.6%) and his more traditional and radical socialist campaign, he showed us that there is still life in the old French revolutionary dog yet. Together with the other three major candidates, Melenchon proved that French politics exhibits a more dynamic society than many others in Europe.
The overall turnout in this first round came very close to 80%. Few commentators expected such a strong popular commitment to the electoral process with many reporting general disillusionment if not downright disgust. Some polls showed the don't-knows holding more than 30% support on occasion and yet this election presents a picture of a surprisingly healthy political culture.
The next president will be inexperienced in public office and will have minimal party support within the legislature. Some commentators insist that this will lead to a period of instability in government. This may be true in the case of Le Pen, with her more robust political style and confrontational programme. Macron, considered by many to be the most likely ultimate winner, seems more able and willing to make the deals necessary to keep his government afloat with support in both the Senate and the National Assembly. He will have to tailor his programme accordingly but this is actually what he has been talking about all along.
As a result of this change in the political relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government, we should witness an interesting evolutionary experiment that may breathe new life into a fifth republic that some had accused of being past its sell-by date. Whoever wins on 7 May will have to deal with the many problems that France currently faces, most importantly economic regeneration and national security. These are big issues that require serious and imaginative solutions. The two candidates left standing offer the voters a clear choice in terms of policy and approach.
The next two weeks will certainly be interesting but I think that Macron will, as expected, emerge the winner. Le Pen is unlikely to collect a sufficient number of votes from the eliminated candidates to succeed and I suspect that the final outcome will be around 66% to 33% in favour of Macron.
This brings me to a final point. There are many good things about the French electoral system and it's always interesting to observe the first round being more than a dull two-horse race. However, while the first round allows everyone to vote for whoever they want, the second round, particularly since the advent of the divisive Front National, is for many people about voting against a candidate they don't like.
On 7 May, many French voters will vote for Macron to keep Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace. This is a negative dynamic. Voting is a citizen's obligation that creates an active stakeholder relationship with the elected office holder. In the French electoral system, that relationship starts badly for a significant number of people and seldom improves during the period of the presidency.
Francois Hollande, elected by many only in order to get rid of Nicolas Sarkozy, could probably tell you something about this problem.