Le Pen party can still spoil Hollande’s golden moment
At the Salle Equinox in Paris last night, supporters and activists of Marine Le Pen danced the night away to 1980s pop music. On the playlist was, reportedly, Lionel Ritchie’s hit ‘All Night Long’. All night Front National activists might well have continued. With around 18% of the vote (18.05% Le Point/17.9% Le Figaro), Mme Le Pen has produced the shock result of the first-round in the French presidential elections, surpassing even her father’s record from 2002 in which he gained some 16.86% of the vote.
While Le Pen does not now qualify for the second round, on Sunday 6th May, she now holds all the cards if Nicolas Sarkozy is to overcome a deficit of 1.42% from the first round against his main rival, Parti Socialiste candidate François Hollande. The latest IPSOS poll gives Hollande a clear lead in the second round, with up to 54% of the vote, while a survey for the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA)–the loose French equivalent of Offcom–gives Hollande 56%. The same pollsters, however, predict that the overwhelming majority of Le Pen voters from the first round will turn to Sarkozy next month. According to IPSOS, 60% of Le Penistes will vote for the outgoing president, while other agencies are predicting that between 17 and 32% will back Hollande.
In a campaign which had previously been dominated by the Eurozone crisis and the French economy, Le Pen has produced a triumphant result for a resurgent and rejuvenated French extreme right. While Sarkozy has softened his rhetoric in light of the tragic shootings in Montauban last month, Le Pen has stuck to her political line, pursuing a programme based on a cap on immigration (at 10,000 entries per year) and French withdrawal from the Schengen treaty. She railed against ‘Anglo-Saxon’ multiculturalism and campaigned in favour of the French assimilationist model–policies which reflected her father’s time at the head of the FN.
Nevertheless, yesterday’s results demonstrate the extent to which Sarkozy has alienated French people sympathetic to a hard-line stance on immigration. Had he developed his initially hard stance on perceived anti-integration practises in the Halal/Kosher meat affair, it is unlikely that Le Pen could ever have attained nearly a fifth of the vote. Sarkozy has, in short, made a campaign error that has cost him precious votes from a floating working class electorate that could have been tempted by moves to curb immigration and drive up employment.
Le Pen’s greatest success has been, not unexpectedly, in the regions of France that have always backed the Front National–the Mediterranean littoral (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), Alsace-Lorraine and Le Pen’s home turf of Nord-pas-de-Calais. More surprising is that in one département, the Gard, an area with a high proportion of pieds-noirs voters–former French settlers in North Africa, who have always been amenable to the FN’s anti-immigration rhetoric– she beat both the mainstream candidates outright. Here Le Pen gained 25.51% of the vote, nearly 1 per cent more than her nearest rival, Sarkozy. In other areas, Le Pen pushed either Hollande or Sarkozy into third place. In the département of Bas-Rhin in Alace-Lorraine, for example, Le Pen gained 21.2% of the vote, pushing Hollande into third with 19.57%. This was repeated in the Var and in the Pas de Calais départements, where Le Pen beat Hollande and Sarkozy respectively to take second place.
Last night’s results, though, reveal that support for Le Pen was consistently between 13 and 19% across France, a feat rarely achieved by the Front National. Indeed, that Le Pen has succeeded in gaining consistent backing even in rural areas like the Corrèze suggests that this is more than a simple protest vote. Rather, the breadth of support for Le Pen underlines the discontent of blue-collar French voters who do not identify with either Hollande or Sarkozy. Importantly, Le Pen, who has engaged in an active social media campaign through Facebook and Twitter, has also widened the appeal of the FN to include younger voters. In the most recent analysis of the 18-24 vote, Le Pen attracted 23% of younger voters, only narrowly behind Sarkozy (with 26%) and Hollande (on 25%). This represents a breakthrough for the FN, whose previous presidential campaign, ahead of the 2007 election, focussed especially on older voters. Le Pen’s results do reflect her father’s era in terms of support from the working classes, estimated at 33% compared with Sarkozy’s 32%.
Indeed, in her speech from the Salle Equinox last night, Le Pen spoke directly to the ‘workers, artisans and shopkeepers of France,’ promising them that with her the ‘honour of being French’ would be ‘found again.’ In terms which echoed the ideological project of the Vichy regime–the National revolution– she promised a ‘national renewal’ with the FN as the ‘only opposition’ to the left. Criticising the ‘parties of banks and high finance’, Le Pen urged her supporters to believe that ‘everything is possible.’
Le Pen refused to endorse either candidate in the second round as she left the podium yesterday, and her aides were this morning at pains to emphasise that the FN is not the Green Party or François Bayrou’s MoDem party and that voters ‘are free to do what they wish.’ Nevertheless, Sarkozy’s move to court the FN leader and her supporters may already have begun. In his own speech last night, Sarkozy addressed the French people in a carefully worded statement which was reminiscent of the language used by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1980s–at the time of the FN’s political breakout. Stating that he ‘knew his duties to the French people,’ Sarkozy referred repeatedly to his pride in France and the French. His task now will be to convince Le Pen voters that he will tackle the issues that are most dear to them–not Europe, but immigration and unemployment. Earlier today, Sarkozy issued a statement in which he made clear that ‘one must listen to [FN] voters.’ Echoing Charles de Gaulle’s speech in Algiers on 4th June 1958, in which ‘the General’ appealed to right-wing supporters of French Algeria, Sarkozy today said that he had listened to FN sympathisers (‘Je vous ai entendus.’)
If Sarkozy repeats his tactics and rhetoric from 2007, in which he appeared tough on law and order and youth crime in suburbs of major cities, then he may push Hollande close in the second round. Even without an official Le Pen endorsement, it is highly likely that Sarkozy and his team will do all they can to match their policies with those of the FN. Hollande’s golden chance to become only the second left-wing president of the Fifth Republic might well be punctured by Marine Le Pen’s breakthrough. The backing of Eva Joly (the Green candidate) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon for Hollande will be negated should Sarkozy succeed in bringing over more than 60 per cent of Le Pen’s electorate. The FN will never be the only opposition party in France, where politics is based on plurality and the Republican values of liberty, equality and brotherhood. But with such a clear demonstration of the disillusionment of 18 per cent of the electorate, Le Pen and the FN will look towards the legislative elections in June safe in the knowledge that they, not the far left, are in the position of king makers.