|Despite a propitious economic and political context, the campaign by Marine Le Pen seems to have flatlined. Current polls point to a stabilisation in electoral support for the Front National down to an average 17 per cent across all major institutes. In some senses, this is an improvement – certainly on Jean-Marie Le Pen’s performance five years ago (10.4 per cent). It would also allow the ‘new’ FN to rejoin the exclusive club of successful populist and radical right parties in Europe, taking fifth place (see overview in Table below).|
Overview of right-wing populist and radical right parties in Europe
||% last national election
||Date last national election
||Freedom Party + Alliance for the Future of Austria
||FPÖ (17.5) + BZÖ (10.7)
||Swiss People’s Party / Democratic Union of the Centre
||Hungarian Justice and Life Party
||Party for Freedom
||Danish People’s Party
||Popular Orthodox Rally
||British National Party
Yet, this score would fall short of the 19 per cent total gathered by the two extreme right candidates – Le Pen père and Bruno Mégret– in 2002, irremediably putting an end to Marine Le Pen’s proclaimed ambition to replicate the political earthquake that shattered the presidential race ten years ago. With a French political system apparently shifting back to its comfortably moderate bipolar dynamics of yore, commentators would no doubt promptly close the FN chapter, as they have done in the past, to return to the delights of traditional left/right politics.
Voting intentions as of 8 February 2012 (averaged polls)
Such an obituary is evidently premature at this stage. The current trend toward bipolarisation is attributable, in part, to the disproportionate amount of media attention that the PS and UMP frontrunners have managed to attract over the past fortnight, which has of course deflected attention from their rivals, and led the French media authority (CSA) to remind the press of the rules on allocating air-time to presidential candidates. That the party is still encountering difficulties in securing the 500 parrainage endorsement signatures required from elected officials is another stumbling block in the FN campaign. The time-consuming collection process is keeping the party’s grassroots away from local campaign activities and door-to-door canvassing, which have always been key to their electioneering in the past. With polls indicating that the UMP candidate would benefit from the absence of a FN candidate in April, the mainstream right might be tempted to push the ‘obstruction’ strategy to the limit. Lastly, even should Le Pen garner the requisite signatures, old intra-party tensions might well resurface in the course of the campaign and taint the FN’s image of unity for its would-be supporters.
Notwithstanding these short-term difficulties, there are other more substantial factors that can hamper Marine Le Pen’s presidential bid. Firstly, recent events have revealed the cosmetic façade of the so-called ‘de-demonization’ strategy. Whilst the new leadership has been successful in increasing levels of public acceptability for the party, a truly reformed FN has yet failed to materialise. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s visible presence on the campaign trail has cast doubts on the party’s capacity to free itself from the traditional culture of the French far right. The latest anti-Semitic innuendo in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s joke about his daughter attending a far-right ball in Vienna, or the publication of racist caricatures on an FN blog show that the party has hardly exorcised its old demons in the way that even the former neo-fascist MSI has moved to transform itself into a centre-right conservative party in Italy. Nor has it really tried – even a quick glance at the FN programme shows its core policies haven’t changed – authoritarian, socially conservative and xenophobic. What the Vienna controversy has also highlighted is the permanence of the links that the FN has established with a number of decidedly unapologetic far right organisations across Europe, beginning with the Euronat network in the late 1990s and, more recently, the pan-European Alliance of European National Movements (AENM).
Secondly, unlike the 2010 and 2011 local elections where Marine Le Pen managed to set the political agenda on immigration and Islam, she now appears unable to shape the campaign. The debate is dominated by the economy and debt reduction, with little room –so far– for the FN’s proprietary issues of immigration and crime where she has higher credibility. Despite a wealth of technical financial and economic data, and countless references to well known economic experts, Le Pen is still handicapped by her lack of credentials on the economy (see chart below).
Do you find Marine Le Pen’s economic program credible?
Source: CSA-M6 poll, 1st February 2012, n=1,008 national sample age 18+, telephone interviews
Lastly, and most importantly, the FN has undertaken strategic programmatic changes, which, in the light of the current polling atrophy, could prove to be risky gambles for the future of the party. A first hazardous move was the 2010 plan to leave the Euro, which has become the cornerstone of the FN presidential platform and a precondition of its generous redistributive policies. In spite of promises of huge public expenditure, up to 200 billion Euros, the proposal has met with scepticism if not outright disbelief by nearly three quarters of the electorate (see chart below). Voters are wary of adventurous political scenarios put forward by the FN which lack support from any credible party of government anywhere else in Europe, or indeed from any other prominent Eurosceptic leader (although Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands is pressing for a national referendum on the matter). As international debt crisis tensions start to ease, anti-Euro positions by the FN might lose their appeal, with the campaign shifting towards domestic economic issues.
Personally, would you like France to keep the euro or return to the franc?
Source: CSA-M6 poll, 1st February 2012, n=1,008 national sample age 18+, telephone interviews
Marine’s second bet is on the notorious ‘globalization losers’. Since the mid 1990s, the FN’s programme has shifted to the left, accentuating welfare chauvinist and redistributive policies, and toning down its original anti-tax agenda. The FN ‘alter-nationalist’ campaign targets voters who precisely feel threatened by globalisation in the current context of economic crisis. However, all evidence to date suggests that a combination of such redistributive policies with the authoritarian and ethnocentric stance of the party relies heavily on blue-collar support and the lower salariat. Current polls show that these occupational groups are definitely hers for the taking – even the more sober polls estimate her taking as many voters from blue-collar workers in particular as François Hollande. But even taking the lead in those groups will not suffice to assemble a sizeable electoral backing. Marine Le Pen’s bet: that the deepening of the economic crisis has taken the lower strata of the middle class on a downward social trajectory closer to the actual conditions and political preferences of these catégories populaires, which would then increase the potential support for the FN.
Whether or not she can manage to convince this downwardly mobile middle class to move to the FN is the crux of her electoral performance in April. This has been understood by the Socialists. The left turn by Hollande since his Le Bourget rally has increased the PS competitiveness in the salariat and catégories populaires, and is a strategic move designed to win back disaffected Left-wing voters. For his part, Sarkozy understands this too, but can only hope to retain such support through he and his team apeing the socially authoritarian and xenophobic positions of the FN which won him their support in 2007. We might have witnessed a critical strategic turn by the UMP following the latest controversial comment by Interior Minister Claude Guéant that “not all civilisations are of equal value”, which has been poisoning the presidential campaign and causing political turmoil over the past couple of days. The shift back to the xenophobic and ethno-culturalist rhetoric is clearly intended to send a signal to FN voters in possible disarray given the current uncertainty about Marine Le Pen’s ability to run. This might however prove a double-edged sword for the UMP majority by putting the FN’s old time favourite issues back on the top of the presidential agenda, helping Le Pen regain political momentum.
Sarkozy’s economic pitch has been queered by events, as well as by his own balance-sheet on such policies. It seems therefore unlikely that he will be given a second chance by the ‘France that gets up early’. The key question to this presidential election, then, is the following – will the lower middle classes, and even the prodigal working class, trust Hollande to assemble their interests and redistributive preferences, and protect them from the dangers of economic globalisation? Or will they turn, dégoûtés, to Marine Le Pen to send yet another message of social desperation and political exasperation?
A shorter version of this article has been published on the Ballots & Bullets Blog of the University of Nottingham on 8 February 2012.