The liberation of Europe -- France leads the way
François Hollande (Socialist): 28.6%
Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP/conservative): 27.2%
Marine Le Pen (Front National): 17.9%
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (FDG/far left): 11.1%
(Six other candidates divided the rest of the vote.)
As expected, Hollande and the incumbent Sarkozy will advance to the run-off on May 6, and polls show Hollande winning easily to become France's first Socialist President in 17 years. The surprises came with the third- and fourth-place finishers. Mélenchon did substantially worse than the polls anticipated, while Le Pen did better, winning the FN's best-ever result.
Hollande's win expresses voters' frustration with economic stagnation and the austerity policies which have exacerbated it (background here and here). Europeans in general are unhappy with austerity. In most countries unemployment is already much higher than in the US, and austerity is making things worse. Also, in most countries (though not France) austerity has been imposed at the behest of the EU, regardless of what elected national governments and their voters want. France, however, is too large (the second most important country in the EU, in fact) to be bossed around in such a manner.
It's Le Pen's high score that has the media in a lather, but be cautious about the knee-jerk designation of the FN as "far right". In the days of her father, that was a fair description. Now, though, the party has ditched much of its radical platform and in fact sounds quite leftist in most ways -- its economic position is paternalist and protectionist to a degree US Democrats would never dare, for example. It's true that it is highly nationalist and anti-immigration, but in Europe immigration largely means Muslims, the less-assimilated among whom are Europe's equivalent of our Christian Right (in Europe's secular societies, Islamists are the chief proponents of creationism in the schools, anti-gay discrimination, anti-Semitism, etc.). It's not really comparable to the immigration issue in the US.
Sarkozy is the odd one out among the four candidates, with his support of failed free-market economic dogmas which have never been popular in France. My guess is, many of Le Pen's voters will easily go for Hollande in the second round.
At almost the same time, the coalition government in the Netherlands splintered because Geert Wilders's Freedom party rebelled against austerity policies. His party, which is anti-immigration and anti-Islam, is routinely tarred as "far right" in the media as the French FN is; however, Wilders was taking a stand against cuts to the social safety net mandated by the EU. As the Islamists are Europe's closest equivalent to our Christian Right, so the EU is its nearest equivalent to American economic conservatives.
The architects and proponents of the EU and its austerity-mania can scowl and fume, but the liberation of Europe is under way.