On the 21st of April 2002, French voters had the shock of their lives when far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front (FN), beat incumbent socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to qualify for the second round of that year’s presidential election. Though he was resoundingly beaten by centre-right President Jacques Chirac in the run-off, it was the best result ever for a hard right candidate.
French voters thought that the Le Pen threat was on the wane when the FN leader only came in 4th at the 2007 presidential election, behind Nicolas Sarkozy (the right-wing leader who went on to win the election and become president), Ségolène Royal (the socialist candidate) and François Bayrou (a centrist). However, with a change of leadership at the top of the far-right party, Marine Le Pen (who is perceived as being marginally more moderate than her father Jean-Marie) took the reins of the FN, and has seemingly brought the party even closer to power than it was in 2002, as a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien set to appear tomorrow shows:
Marine Le Pen (FN) would be in first place in the first round of the presidential election if it were held today, with 23% of the vote, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy and Martine Aubry [leader of the French Socialist Party and Mayor of Lille], who are tied at 21%, according to a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien which will be released on Sunday…
This is the first time in any presidential election poll that the leader of the Front national qualified for the second round. For several weeks now, commentators on the right and on the left are suggesting that France could be headed for a repeat of the 21st of April, 2002, where Lionel Jospin was eliminated in the first round, leaving Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen to face off in the second.
Marine Le Pen has set out to give the FN a make-0ver – but it is, of course, merely a cosmetic change leaving the party’s core values intact. While her father was known as much for denying the Holocaust and diatribes against abortion (which is overwhelmingly popular and a fringe political issue in France, unlike the United States) as he was for his opposition to immigration and his country’s membership of the EU, Le Pen junior focuses on Islam and law and order, copying from the playbook of parties that have had success elsewhere in Europe, such as Geert Wilders‘s Party for Freedom in Holland and Umberto Bossi‘s Lega Nord in Italy. At the same time, thanks to her political base in economically depressed Northern France, she has an ability to relate with working families worried about globalisation and economic liberalism that her father lacked because of his extreme reputation.
Quoting Joseph Stiglitz and David Cameron, Le Pen plays on fears of modernity, free trade and immigration that mainstream politicians have been all-too-willing to talk about themselves, pandering to the far right to win votes. But Marine Le Pen can speak about such subjects with more credibility thanks to her far right background, while appealing to enough moderates to make a serious impact on the French political landscape. While the 2012 election is more than a year away, the new FN leader is seemingly making waves on both the right and the left by both pointing out Nicolas Sarkozy’s failures to live up to his promises to curb immigration and improve security, and playing the left’s game too with a protectionist, anti-big-business line that will speak to workers’ concerns about jobs disappearing overseas while French bankers and businessmen remain as rich as ever.
Marine Le Pen is a major threat to both sides of the political spectrum – and, with several candidacies on the left and the centre-right, one of the two mainstream presidential hopefuls (Sarkozy and his socialist opponent, who will probably be either Aubry or current IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn) could well come up short and find him- or herself excluded from the second round of the 2012 election. And while a Le Pen candidacy would never win a majority of votes in France (or, at least, I would hope not), French voters would once again be confronted with a choice between an unpopular mainstream candidate and an extreme protest candidate, which would not be good for democracy in the long run. Voters are best served when they are able to choose between two competing, coherent visions for the future of their country, rather than simply having to pick between moderation and anger.