The French Election: Hope and Despair

“The rise of new populisms”

By Antoine Cerisier

So here it is: French citizens have voted for the first round of this year’s presidential election. And most candidates got the result they expected. The “Small 5” candidates only received 6% of votes, as opposed to 94% for the “Big 5”. The Greens’ score is particularly disappointing: Norwegian-born Eva Joly, a renowned anti-corruption judge, got less than 3%. Among the bigger candidates, Socialist François Hollande came first with almost 29%, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy’s 27%; and François Bayrou, who was credited with 10% in the last polls, only got 9,1. However, the real surprise came from the balance of power between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen. In my last article I contended that “Marine Le Pen should not get more than 14% of the votes in the first round”, as opposed to 15 for Mr Mélenchon; I was wrong, and so were most polling agencies. In the end, Ms Le Pen and her Front National (FN) beat the leftwing candidate to the second place with an astonishing 18%, almost 7 points ahead of Mr Mélenchon. This came as a shock for most commentators, both in France and abroad.

But enough figures for now: let us try to understand the meaning and origins of the Le Pen vote. First, it has to be said the FN enjoys a strong electoral basis, which represents at least one tenth of the French population. It is particularly strong in the North and Southeast of France, but also in numerous small towns all across the country. However, Ms Le Pen seduced voters outside this hardcore, often xenophobic “fanbase”. The current economic turmoil and sustained unemployment and inequalities can also trigger this kind of protest vote from the poorer parts society. Indeed, Ms Le Pen is extremely popular among blue-collar workers and the unqualified youth. Another factor could be the tragic Merah affair, which led to the death of seven people in the Southwest of France a few weeks ago. The far-right took advantage of this to scare voters and stigmatise Muslim citizens. “How many French-Algerians like this terrorist land everyday on the coasts of France?” she declared in a late electoral speech. A third factor could be the French media’s restless effort to discredit Jean-Luc Mélenchon and compare him to Marine Le Pen (see cartoon). Even serious, left-of-centre publications like Le Monde and L’Express shamelessly criticised the leftwing candidate, branding him and Le Pen as equally populist. A quick look at both parties’ programmes reveals the absurdity of such a comparison: just to take one example, the FN wants to expel all immigrants within five years, while Mr Mélenchon and the Front de Gauche ask for the regularisation of all illegal immigrant workers. In the voting booth, many discontent working-class voters may have remembered this analogy and thought, “well, I can vote for Mr Mélenchon or Ms Le Pen, it does not make any difference”. In his post-electoral speech, Mr Mélenchon expressed his anger at mainstream media: “shame on those who chose to hit me rather than condemning the Front National!” In any case, I still cannot understand how a candidate who gathered 100,000 supporters in every large French city can lag 7% behind Marine Le Pen, who did not stage a single major demonstration during her campaign.

Patrick Buisson, the President’s rightwing guru

Finally, Mr Sarkozy and his party also contributed to the rise of Marine Le Pen. This is what I mentioned in my previous article: the campaign’s shift to the right (droitisation), under the influence of far-right adviser Patrick Buisson, to attract far-right voters. UMP’s focus on immigration, Islam and the alleged superiority of Western civilisation created a putrid atmosphere of fear and xenophobia. In view of the first round results, this strategy was not only disgraceful but also inefficient: the incumbent only reached the second place behind François Hollande and Ms Le Pen came third with almost 20%. Nonetheless, it seems the conservatives are still chasing far-right voters for the second round. Indeed, Nicolas Sarkozy is in a tight spot with less than 28% of first round votes and virtually all other candidates supporting Mr Hollande for the second round. His shift to the right to attract Le Pen voters has now gone even further. Immigration and security have become central themes of his recent electoral rallies, at the expense of fiscal or employment issues. The President’s latest proposal is to organise a counter-demonstration on 1 May for “real workers” of the “silent majority” – as opposed to “lazy” trade unionists and their followers, no doubt. While it may be the end for Nicolas Sarkozy and his team – François Hollande remains the favourite for 6 May – it is not a very dignifying one. His strategy has been criticised even within his own party and could lead to the implosion of the French traditional Right. To pay tribute to Winston Churchill, Mr Sarkozy was given the choice between defeat and dishonour; he chose dishonour and he will – most likely – be defeated.

Meanwhile, The Economist seems to ignore this travesty and keeps hitting on the lazy French. The magazine published a recent article entitled: “The rather dangerous Mr Hollande”. They insist the Socialist “would be bad for his country and Europe”. Why? He would undermine “Europe’s willingness to pursue the painful reforms it must eventually embrace”. For The Economist, the more “painful” reforms are the better – naturally for the majority of the population, not for the sacrosanct financial markets. Let us hope that, if elected, François Hollande and his team will not surrender to this masochist ideology. Besides, the magazine’s support for Nicolas Sarkozy is yet another reason to doubt the incumbent’s credibility.

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