The French presidential race came to a standstill yesterday as a result of the gruesome murders at the Otzar Hatora School in Toulouse.
The entire French political class, from the Communists on the extreme left to the National Front on the extreme right, condemned the crime and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice. Candidates temporarily appealed to unity rather than emphasizing divisions.
The campaign will crank up again, however, and some of the polls are showing a dead heat on the first round between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.
Sarkozy has managed to catch up at least on the first round, thanks to two factors: support for the National Front's Marine Le Pen has declined by 2 percentage points to 15%, with Sarkozy being the prime beneficiary of this change.
At the same time, the candidate of the united far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged to 11.5% with some of the gains at the expense of the Ecologists, but some also at the expense of the Socialists.
Mélenchon is becoming the phenomenon of this race. He is doing much better than the formerly mighty Communists, who in the past 2 presidential contests of 2002 and 2007, captured a puny 3.37% and 1.93% respectively.
Last Sunday Mélenchon presided over a demonstration at the Bastille symbolizing the rekindling of the revolutionary spirit. "We are the red flag" crowed the candidate before a demonstration estimated at a 120,000 people. The demonstration concluded with the revolutionary anthem, the Internationale, followed by the French anthem La Marseillaise.
Mélenchon is doing much better then Marine Le Pen in tapping popular anger against economic austerity and what the candidate called "the servitude towards the banks".
If he is elected president, Mélenchon promises to do away with the presidential system of the 5th Republic and bring back the parliamentary system - in the 6th Republic..
The socialists are making a brave face about the resurgence of the extreme left and their arguments is essentially that a leftist tide will lift all boats on the left and primarily Hollande's Socialist boat. However it is Sarkozy' party that is happy about Mélenchon and some are facetiously promising to erect a statue in his honor if the surge continues.
As already mentioned Mélenchon takes away votes from Hollande giving Sarkozy a chance to lead the pack after the first rounds. Leadership after the first round does not ensure victory. In 1974 Francois Mitterrand as the joint Socialist and Communist candidate led after the first round only to lose in the 2nd round when the right united behind Valery Giscard D'Estaing. In 1981 Mitterrand trailed Giscard after the first round but overtook him on the second.
The electoral logic goes deeper. If the extreme left manages to pull 15% on the first round Sarkozy will be able to make the case to the political center that the Socialists are beholden to the extreme left (much in the way that the Socialists are accusing Sarkozy of pandering to the extreme right). The Socialist breakthrough in 1981 was achieved by marginalizing the Communist vote on the first round. It was then considered safe to vote for Mitterrand who no longer had a Communist millstone around his neck. If the center-right manages to link Hollande to Mélenchon it has a fighting chance in the second and decisive round.