Front de Gauche (Left Front) is modeled after Die Linke, the German Far Left party founded by Oskar Lafontaine. Front de Gauche federates the former communists with the most leftward elements in the socialist party, and attracts quite a lot of Trotskyites and green militants.

The other party is a reborn National Front that — by supplementing its old anti-immigration rhetoric with a quasi-socialist platform — has been able to take over the working class and parts of the middle class.

Both populist parties owe their sudden fortunes to charismatic new leaders. Jean-Luc Mélanchon of Front de Gauche, a former socialist MP and junior minister, is a robust if sketchy Castro- or Chavez-style orator. His rallies throughout France, complete with red flags and the Bolshevik or Spanish Civil War paraphernalia, have gathered tens of thousands. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, is a much more brilliant and nuanced orator and debater. Mélanchon always wears a business suit with a red tie. Le Pen, a very attractive woman in her forties, wears a business suit as well: a dark blue jacket with dark blue trousers. Le Pen’s equivalent to Mélanchon’s emblematic tie is her face: half-long blond hair and deep blue eyes. While Mélanchon acts as a plebian tribune (his campaign motto was “seize power”), there is something almost royal in Le Pen’s demeanor. Her motto was, quite boldly, “France, of course”.

Even more striking are the political similarities between Front de Gauche and the National Front. Both parties call for a “revolution” against the present elites of France. Both oppose the European Union and the euro. Both insist on national independence and are defiant of NATO. Both claim to be “secular”. Both support a strong state. While Front de Gauche is fiercely pro-Palestinian, the National Front seems to be “neutral” — Ron Paul-style — on Israel, a far cry from the pro-Israel stand of other right-wing populist parties in Europe, not to mention the conservative populists of North America.

The main differences lie with immigration: whereas Front de Gauche praises it, the National Front opposes it. But even so, Marine Le Pen avoids anything in her speeches or in her party’s literature that smells of racism or hatred of Islam as a religion.

Hollande woke up quite late to the two-fold populist threat. In recent weeks, he has been much more active and has engaged in the exacting business of rallies and public speeches and meetings with the average citizen in the street. His activity may have cut Mélanchon’s wings to a point, but not Le Pen’s, who emerged on Sunday as the ballot’s real winner.

The case of François Bayrou, the centrist outsider, is much different. A former minister of Education with strong Christian and peasant roots, Bayrou is concerned with national unity (with himself as the unifier) rather than with revolution. Until 2007, he was the leader of a sizable third party, in between Right and Left. Then most of his centrist allies deserted him to support Sarkozy — and to keep their seats, with conservative support, as MPs or local elected officials. For a short while, pollsters credited him with 13% or even 15% of the national vote in 2012. Now that he has dropped to a frustrating 9%, he must play his last card: join either Hollande or Sarkozy or neither, in the most cautious way.

The first polls, taken right after the first ballot on Sunday night, are rather confusing, yet still they show that Sarkozy stands a chance to win over the Le Pen vote. According to a CSA poll released on Sunday night, 40% of Bayrou’s supporters will settle for Hollande on May 6, along with 27% of Le Pen supporters; Sarkozy will retain 25% of the Bayrou vote and 52% of the Le Pen vote. According to a Louis Harris poll, Hollande will get 38% of the Bayrou voters and just 17% of Le Pen’s, whereas Sarkozy will attract 32% of Bayrou voters and 44% of Le Pen’s. A third poll by firm BVA ascribes 36% of the Bayrou votes and 20% of the Le Pen vote to Hollande; Sarkozy would gather 39% of Bayrou supporters and 57% of Le Pen supporters. Chances are that two weeks of hard campaigning will help Sarkozy make inroads into both camps.

The major task for both the conservatives and the socialists is to woo the National Front voters. Sarkozy has called for “every patriot” to join him on May 6. As for the socialists, they say openly that the Le Pen sympathizers must be “understood” and “won back”. Marine Le Pen is going to hint as to her final stand on the second ballot on May Day. Clearly, she wants to hear from both sides regarding what they are willing to give her. One prize could be an explicit promise to change the electoral law in order to give the National Front full access to Parliament and to other electoral offices.

On the other hand, she would be mistaken to believe that she owns her supporters votes. Many people voted for her not in order to get her elected but just to make it clear to the classic Right that immigration and Islamization are definitely non-starters. Even long-time supporters hate the Left even more that they despise Sarkozy. If she helps Hollande win, she will be seen as a traitor by many of them, especially since the Left will then quite probably win the National Assembly next June, and thus be in control of almost all political powers: the Executive, the Assembly, the Senate, almost all regional councils, most local councils, and the French représentation to the European Parliament.

One party rule by another name.