Non-French readers might have heard something about the surge of the french far-right National Front party (Front National, FN for short). Recent surveys gave newly-elected FN leader Marine Le Pen (daughter of historical president and founder Jean-Marie Le Pen) a 24% score in a presidential first round election (scheduled for real in 2012), in front of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and possible socialist tickets Dominique Strauss-Khan, François Hollande and Martine Aubry (current head of the Socialist party).
As a reminder, the french presidential election system has two rounds, a nearly free-for-all first round followed by a winner-takes-it-all second round between the two first-round finalists. A strong FN surge occurred previously in the 2002 election where Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac in the second round, the latter winning by a wide margin as many electors who disliked Chirac voted for him anyway as they liked Le Pen even less. But in 2002 Chirac was still way ahead of Le Pen in the first round, whereas in last week’s surveys Sarkozy came in behind Le Pen and in some cases (depending on who the socialist contender was) only in third place – thus out of it altogether!
A wind of panic has since swept the political establishment on both the right and the left: Marine Le Pen, if she doesn’t win the next election, is at least pretty sure of being king-maker.
On the right, Sarkozy was hoping to play off the FN against the Socialists and play it Chirac-like again. He has also been poaching on FN territory for a long time by initiating xenophobic legislation, hoping to grab a sizable part of the FN electorate (and that worked for him in the 2007 election). But that strategy has a limit insofar as the FN electorate, although generally somewhat xenophobic, is also looking for a party that looks (on paper at least) after the preoccupations of the popular class. Sarkozy’s UMP party is the perfect opposite, a plutocratic party whose members and friends are much more numerous in the jet-set than in dole lines. On the right of the political divide the UMP reigns supreme, François Bayrou‘s MODEM and Dominique de Villepin‘s République Populaire hovering around 5% each.
On the left, a spectrum of parties that goes from the traditional, mainstream social-democrat Socialist Party (PS) and the green Europe-Ecologie (EE) to the far left “anti-capitalist” party NPA, the Front de Gauche (Left Front) and the Communist party to name the major one. Infighting within the various PS factions and between the “left” family makes things easier for the UMP and the FN, who have clear leaders and a guaranteed above 10% part of the vote. Of the two major parties on the left (PS and EE), none has yet decided on who will lead each side and the bickering to come isn’t going to help them at all. Pundits seem to be saying that for the PS it will be a contest between Martine Aubry and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and for EE between ex-judge Eva Joly and ecologist TV presenter and activist Nicolas Hulot – but take that with a pinch of salt.
So back to our FN problem. The recent surge can be explained by three factor: unhappiness with Sarkozy (currently with a very low standing in opinion polls), freshness of the new FN leader who is not likely to make the same blunders as her father (such as “WW2 gas chambers are a detail of History”), and lack of credibility of the far-left in the eyes of people in need of jobs, scared of immigration (for good and bad reasons) and fed-up with the ways of the “elite”. The FN program designed to answer these demands for jobs and security are pretty radical and thus unlikely to be implemented even if Le Pen wins, everybody kind of knows that but if the FN can simply get a few key ministries within a UMP-led government, that will be a major victory for them.
Sarkozy cannot take the risk of being behind Le Pen in the 2012 first round, so he must either siphon more votes from the FN by aligning himself every closer to Le Pen, or change tack and go for the centrists and social-democrats about to give up on the PS. The first approach is dangerous because, as Le Pen once said, if both programs are the same it’s better to take the original than the copy. The second approach is difficult because nobody outside the UMP trusts or believes Sarkozy anymore, the mask fell long ago. At lot of midnight oil is currently burning at the UMP and at its front desk, the Elyzée.
On the left they cannot let the UMP and the FN fight it out alone, but they have no idea what to do about it. The obvious approach would be to have a united front, win the election and then share out the positions but nobody outside the PS wants that for fear of having to submit to the PS – they have tried this before under Lionel Jospin and the wounds are still healing. Everybody prefers to lose free than to win with shackles. Even the most obvious tactic of all, a common PS+EE ticket, isn’t flying. Perhaps the FN surge is going to shock the various party leaders into a constructive pow wow, some voices are calling for this now but will they be heard?