While the French media has been fixated on rules that would prohibit the early publishing of exit poll data on Sunday, and each candidate has been making a final push for votes, there’s not so much to analyze in advance of the vote:
We already know the top two candidates to emerge will most certainly be incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande.
Despite polls that showed Sarkozy tied with or even pulling ahead of Hollande, the trend has now moved back to a slight Hollande lead. Either way, it seems a safe bet that each will win just under one-third of the votes. Ultimately, every poll has shown Hollande with a significant second-round lead, so the winner of the first round will take away bragging rights and perhaps a little momentum, but if Sarkozy edges Hollande out in the first round by a small amount, don’t expect that alone to significantly scramble the dynamic.
Indeed, the first-round winner is by no means a lock to win the second round — Lionel Jospin, for example, won the first round of the 1995 election but Jacques Chirac emerged in the second round with a majority; similarly, François Mitterand lost the first round of the 1981 election (to Chirac) before winning the second round, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing won the second round in 1974 after losing the first round.
The battle for third place looks a bit more interesting — although none of Front national candidate Marine Le Pen, Front de gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon or centrist François Bayrou will place out of the first round on Sunday, a strong showing for any of them could increase their political leverage with Sarkozy and/or Hollande in the event of a second-round endorsement (Le Pen is unlikely to support Sarkozy, although her supporters will likely support him overwhelmingly; Mélenchon has already said he will support Hollande in the second round; it is unclear who Bayrou might endorse). Each will also be looking to June parliamentary elections as well — a strong showing in April is not dispositive of a similarly strong showing in parliamentary elections, but it’s a good indicator. Mélenchon, too, may well be able to exchange a full-throated and enthusiastic endorsement of Hollande for soft support in the legislative election and/or potential ministry posts for his fellow communist/leftist coalition partners.