April 23, 2012

The French Presidential Elections 2012: On the extremes. Part 1

On the extremes: Le Pen holds all the cards after disappointing night for Mélenchon and the extreme left

The big winner in last night’s first round of the French presidential elections was undoubtedly Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right Front National (FN). With the biggest proportion of the vote the FN has ever recorded in a national election (with around 18% of French voters backing the daughter of the founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen), there was reportedly much celebration at the Salle Equinox in Paris last night, where activists danced to 1980s pop classics. The level of support for Le Pen is staggering, demonstrating a deep disillusionment on the part of working-class voters with the established candidates of François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. One estimate today (23rd April) suggests that Le Pen beat the other candidates in the share of working-class votes, with up to 33% backing the FN leader, compared with 32% for Sarkozy.

With Sarkozy behind Hollande in most opinion polls ahead of the second round run-off on the 6th May, the outgoing President must now look to Le Pen’s supporters from the first round if he is to have any chance of a second term in office. Sarkozy appealed directly to Le Pen voters in a speech this lunchtime, saying that he understood their concerns. His speech last night also had nationalist overtones, emphasising the importance of France to the French.

It seems likely that up to 60% of Le Pen supporters will ultimately vote for Sarkozy (according to IPSOS), who may well re-adopt his tactics from the 2007 elections, in which he appealed to the working-classes through a hard stance on immigration and law and order. While Le Pen and her aides have refused to endorse either Hollande or Sarkozy, the FN knows that it is in a position to alter the course of the second round. An official endorsement could see Sarkozy erode Hollande’s lead, but even without the backing of Marine Le Pen, the present incumbent of the Élysée could attract more voters from the extreme right than Hollande can win from the extreme left. It will now be vital for Sarkozy and his team to adopt as many of Le Pen’s policies as possible, pushing issues like the Eurozone crisis to one side in favour of tackling immigration and unemployment in France’s poorest areas.

Le Pen’s success is, though, more than just a vote against either of the two mainstream candidates. Her campaign has been driven by an appeal to ordinary, working French people. While her manifesto was very similar to those of her father–calling for a tighter cap on immigration and a renegotiation of France’s commitments to the Schengen treaty and the European Court of Human Rights–Le Pen has engaged actively with social media, attracting only slightly less voters in the 18-24 bracket (23%) than Sarkozy (25%) and Hollande (24%). Her Facebook page (‘Marine Le Pen: la page officielle’), for instance, has some 60,569 ‘likes’, many of which are quite visibly young supporters. She has also been uncompromising in her stance over perceived anti-assimilationist religious practices since the Kosher/Halal meat affair earlier this year, and has retained her hard line on immigration after the Montauban shootings, where Sarkozy softened his rhetoric. It is clear after last night’s results that it is Marine Le Pen, not Sarkozy, who has won the battle for the floating working-class vote, especially amongst young people. If Sarkozy is to win over this section of the electorate, he must engage himself in social media–a forum in which he appears uncomfortable.

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