Feature

France: The real winner is Marine Le Pen

The far-right National Front has arrived in the mainstream.

French politics have been “utterly redrawn,” said Dominique Jung in the Strasbourg Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace. The far-right National Front, which once advocated the wholesale deportation of “non-European” immigrants and made light of Nazi Germany’s occupation of France, has arrived in the mainstream. Party front woman Marine Le Pen took third place in the first round of the presidential election, with an unprecedented 18 percent of the vote. And in contrast to 2002, when Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, led the anti-immigrant party, there were many young people and women among National Front voters this time. Le Pen has revitalized her party with her populist touch, and won’t give her backing to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). While smaller leftist parties such as the Greens will throw their support in the second round to the Socialist challenger, François Hollande, Le Pen’s National Front “plans to play solo.” It will “maintain itself as a destabilizing force—regardless of whether that will ultimately help the Left.”

It actually serves Le Pen’s interests to let Sarkozy lose on May 6, said Renaud Dély in Le Nouvel Observateur. That would leave a good chunk of the UMP feeling “orphaned, leaderless, and ready to follow the siren song of Le Penism.” The outgoing president has been so proud of his political savvy in adopting many issues once considered the sole province of the National Front. He stripped the UMP of what he called its “taboo around mentioning issues of immigration and national identity.” He awakened in UMP voters a willingness to indulge in their baser nationalist tendencies. The payoff? Many of them are now primed to jump to Le Pen. A French politician once said it was better to lose the election than to lose his soul. “Nicolas Sarkozy is on track to do both.”

Sarkozy still thinks he can win by going tough on immigration and crime, said Françoise Fressoz in LeMonde.fr. But that could easily backfire. Those who voted for Le Pen in the first round “were the most disappointed” in Sarkozy’s first-term performance on those issues. Why should they believe him when he tacks right for the runoff? They may just stay home. Meanwhile, a harder-right stance could alienate centrists, driving them toward Hollande.

That will leave Le Pen in the position she has been working toward: opposition leader, said Abel Mestre in Le Monde. The National Front long had a “whiff of anti-Semitism” hanging over it, thanks to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s unfortunate penchant for statements minimizing Nazi atrocities. Marine, by contrast, has focused on economic issues—criticizing the EU and calling for France to leave the euro currency—in a deliberate attempt to make the National Front “look like a party capable of governing and not confined to speeches denouncing immigration.” The results of the first round show that “Operation Credibility worked.”

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