The likely occupant of the Elysée Palace sees himself as a new De Gaulle, determined to reshape France's economy and international standing. John Lichfield sees trouble ahead
Le Petit Nicolas is about to become the Next Big Thing across the Channel. Failing a hand-brake turn by the electorate, or monumental simultaneous blunders by half a dozen polling organisations, Nicolas Sarkozy will be elected President of France today.
He will be the youngest man to occupy the Elysée Palace for 29 years. He will be the first French leader to be born after the Second World War. And at 5ft 5ins, he will be, by far, the shortest man to be President during the Fifth Republic.
He has run a deeply unpleasant campaign, in the name of some sensible ideas and some disturbing ones. He has promised to unite France, but has successfully appealed to the most tribal instincts of the hard right and the white middle classes. After the glittering, then tarnished, era of Le Roi Mitterrand, and the muddled era of Le Roi Chirac, the world will have to learn live with Le Roi Sarkozy. It is unlikely to be an easy ride for the French, or anyone else.
Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, is accused by his many enemies in France - not all of them on the left - of being too American or too "Anglo-Saxon" in his attitudes, but the world is likely to find that he is deeply French. His ambition is to be a new Charles de Gaulle, someone who rebuilds the self-esteem, economic strength and international influence of France. He favours lower taxes and a more liberal labour market, but believes in the interventionist duty of the state.
Mr Sarkozy has achieved the extraordinary coup - or imposture - of winning by running against the record in government of his own centre-right party. He will almost certainly win the "third round" of the elections, the parliamentary poll, which follows next month. Then his problems will begin.
The more militant, and even some moderate, French trade unions are spoiling for a "fourth round", in which they oppose the new President's allegedly "ultra-capitalist" social and economic reforms in the streets next autumn. Demonisation of Mr Sarkozy in the poor, multi-racial suburbs of French cities has reached such a pitch that the new President might also face an incendiary "fifth round" - a rekindling of the riots of autumn 2005.
The slightest incidence of police violence after Mr Sarkozy takes office could trigger new protests. The French police, who regard him as "their man", are unlikely to be in an accommodating mood when the hyper-active former interior minister occupies the Elysée Palace. The Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, has issued a series of undignified warnings in recent days that a Sarkozy presidency might "unleash a wave of violence and brutality across the country". She was wrong to say it - but she was not the only person to fear it.
Ms Royal ran a frustrating, muddled campaign, which finally came alive in the last few days. In a series of eloquent, passionate speeches around the country, she begged the French people to choose her "creative energy" over the "negative energy" of her opponent. She also gave a gutsy and fluent performance in a televised debate on Wednesday, but it was already too late. The nation was watching Mr Sarkozy, and by attacking him so vigorously, Ms Royal ended up doing him a favour. Would he become nasty under pressure? He did not.
Mr Sarkozy's debate persona - reasonable, restrained - was utterly different from the angry, finger-jabbing man who has been roaming the country for the last four months. At his rallies, he appealed to the tribal - and, some say, racial - instincts of the right and hard right. He posed as the messiah who would rescue the "silent majority" and the "real France" from "immoral", leftist values. Leftism had infected the whole nation since the student revolt of 1968, he said. That implicitly included the several centre-right governments to which Mr Sarkozy has belonged.
All this has made for an absorbing French election, lacking only a twist in the final chapter. Mr Sarkozy has led the polls since mid-January, and topped the first-round vote two weeks ago with 31 per cent to Ms Royal's 25.8 per cent. To win today, she would need to take more than half the centrist vote (over 18 per cent of the total) which went to François Bayrou in the first round.
Most older centrist voters have - reluctantly in many cases - decided to go along with Mr Sarkozy. Some of the younger ones have switched to Ms Royal, but not enough for her to win: the final polls gave her opponent a lead of between 6 and 9 per cent. Much of the "wider", or harder left, electorate will turn out for Ms Royal, but they represented only about 10 per cent of the total in the first round. One way or another, the whole political spectrum in France has shifted radically to the right in 2007.
That will not prevent the trade unions from opposing Mr Sarkozy's economic and social reforms. His likely prime minister, the smooth and handsome François Fillon, says that a crash programme will be pushed though the new parliament in July. This would probably include - shades of Margaret Thatcher - changes in trade union law to impose secret ballots for strikes longer than eight days and to force unions to operate a "minimum" train and bus service during stoppages.
The unions will oppose these changes on the streets in September. Which of the two Sarkozys will respond? The reasonable man who debated on Wednesday, or the fiery crusader for the silent majority?
Mr Sarkozy is no ultra-capitalist, whatever the unions might say. Nor is he likely to be an easy partner for Britain in Europe. He believes in creating French, or European, champion industries. He wants European trade barriers against alleged "dumping" by the Chinese or developing world. He wants EU governments, not the markets, to fix the value of the euro. He promises to defend the European farm policy, and even to move it back to its price-fixing glory days.
Britain's own leader in waiting, Gordon Brown, knows Nicolas Sarkozy well from EU meetings of finance ministers. They are said to get on. But in the long run, their relationship is likely to be no happier than that between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac.
John Lichfield's French election diary
That's my boy
The young man at Ségolène Royal's last big rally, in Lille, was being interviewed for television. Did he think Ms Royal could still win the election?
The young man shook his head doubtfully. "Maybe she can win," he said. "But probably not."
And who was this loyal Socialist? Step forward Thomas Hollande, 21, son of François Hollande.
And his mother? None other than the underdog candidate, Ms Royal.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Former European Commission president Jacques Delors was at the Lille rally, looking well for his age. He is 81. As he began to express an opinion to the television cameras, a rather tough-looking woman dragged him off: "Ça suffit, papa," she said.
This was Martine Aubrey, 56, Mr Delors' daughter, Mayor of Lille, architect of the 35-hour week in France - and once spoken of as France's possible first woman president. She and Ms Royal are not friends.
Royal's high point
Her elegant all-white outfits, which have earned her the praise of fashion editors both at home and abroad. Though one of her colleagues calls it a nurse's outfit. And what of her policies?
Royal's low point
Her comment that the Chinese justice system was more "efficient" than that in France. At what exactly? And, anyway, isn't the true low point sometime after polls close today?
Sarkozy's high point
Winning the first round with 31 per cent of the vote, compared with just under 26 per cent for Ms Royal. The high point so far, that is.
Sarkozy's low point
Using a mini-riot at the Gare du Nord station in Paris to accuse Ms Royal of being on the side of "criminals and fraudsters".
So, farewell, then Jean-Marie Le Pen. The old right-winger was routed in the first poll, the dizzy heights of his second place four years ago long forgotten.
One for the future
François Bayrou, the centrist candidate, is widely recognised as having fought a fine campaign and for a time threatened to squeeze Ms Royal out of the race, which would have been bad news for her, but even worse for Mr Sarkozy. Might his time yet come?
A total of 44.5 million people are registered to vote. The polling stations open at 8am (7am British time) today and close at 8pm, although citizens in overseas territories such as Tahiti in the south Pacific and Martinique in the Caribbean voted yesterday.