Under a first-past-the-post system, socialist contender François Hollande would have won Sunday’s presidential election in France: he garnered 28.5% of the vote, while the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy lagged a bit behind with 27.1%.

Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen received 18.2%. Neo-communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon received 11.1%, and centrist François Bayrou received 9.1%. Five other candidates — including the Green Party’s Eva Joly and local Lyndon Larouche activist Jacques Cheminade — received less than 7% combined.

However, France uses the two-round electoral system (along with beacons of democracy such as Afghanistan, Argentina, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe). Sunday’s ballot was thus no more than a preliminary test — the real election will take place on May 6, when French voters will decide between the two frontrunners only. And here is a splendid paradox: every poll points to a Hollande victory, yet statistics show there is a potential conservative majority and that Sarkozy may still win.

On the first ballot, the global Left (Hollande, Mélenchon, and most of the very small candidates) received less than 45% of the vote. The global non-Left (Sarkozy, Le Pen, Bayrou, and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a Gaullist loyalist who received 1.8%) summed more than 56%.

The Le Pen and Bayrou votes are crucial: it is unlikely, to say the least, that most of them will throw their support to Hollande.

So why did Sarkozy finish second (a disgrace that no French incumbent president had yet suffered)? He had been a conservative — perhaps neoconservative — candidate in the 2007 presidential election. However, he disappointed many if not most of his followers thoughout his first term, even though — through a piecemeal approach — he introduced many suitable economic and business reforms and took timid steps to reform the constitution in a truly democratic and bipartisan way.

His failure was in part a matter of character. As a president, he lacked gravitas, vista, charisma: some things the French, who never really jettisoned their old monarchic culture, couldn’t forgive. His troubled private life (a divorce from his politically minded wife Cecilia shortly after his election, his instant romance and marriage to model Carla Bruni) did not help.

Then he proved to be a poor manager. He didn’t know how to lead a team, to share authority, to avoid micromanagement, to sell his achievements in a convincing way. But what mattered most was his constantly shifting policies. A French Reaganite upon being elected, he became a classic French statist and welfare provider after the 2008 financial meltdown. Though a fierce critic of illegal immigration, he didn’t launch any real policies to curtail it. He defended the pro-Western republic of Georgia in 2008, but he then became a Putin sympathizer.

Though an anti-Turkish militant while campaigning, he later engaged the misty design of a Mediterranean alliance of democratic European nations with undemocratic Arab countries and Erdogan’s Turkey. A great supporter of Israel in 2007, Sarkozy later criticized the Jewish state’s self-defense operations in the Gaza as “disproportionate”; he even called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu “a liar” in a conversation with Barack Obama.

Once a close friend of Tunisia’s dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mobarak, and a distant friend of Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi (whom he invited for a lavish visit in the fall of 2007) and Syria’s henchman Bashir al-Assad (whom he hosted during Bastille Day celebrations in 2009), he turned against them all as soon as the Arab Spring broke out. He even led the NATO onslaught on Gaddafi that delivered Libya to the local Salafists.

It comes as no surprise that so many conservative voters deserted Sarkozy throughout his term (he lost all intermediate elections, whether local, regional, or European). The hatred he had formerly elicited from so many parts of French society for being conservative or neoconservative, pro-American, and pro-Israel, was later compounded by the disillusionment of his supporters. Indeed, not much was left of him by the second half of his term.

It is all the more remarkable that he was able to come back from the dead and to almost achieve parity on Sunday with François Hollande, the socialist champion. The thanks go to a few advisors — including Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant, and his top political advisor and pollster Patrick Buisson — who convinced Sarkozy to again concentrate on conservative basics.

Hollande is supposed to be a nice, decent man. I must admit I was impressed by him at the French Jewish Representatives Board’s annual dinner last February. He sat rather modestly at a second row table while Sarkozy delivered a well-written but unconvincing speech, and Hollande even shook hands with him afterwards. Hollande was born into a conservative family, opted for socialism out of ambition (like most of the present socialist leaders), graduated brillantly from ENA (the hotbed of French statist aristocracy), worked for Francois Mitterrand personally, became the Socialist Party boss, was bypassed by his ambitious ex-consort Ségolène Royal in 2007, and finally was anointed as the 2012 candidate in the socialist primaries of 2011 — the first American-style primaries ever held in France.

As a political leader, Hollande cannot be distinguished from the French Socialist Party and the French Left at large, which is ten times wilder than the entire Barack Obama administration.

Hollande’s tactics have been, for the best part of his campaign, almost entirely passive. He speculated that Sarkozy was so intensely disliked that all he himself had to do was just be an alternative. This tactic did work quite well throughout the winter. Hollande then met an unexepected challenge: the rapid rise of two strong populist parties.