SOME readers have been asking why Marine Le Pen did so well in the first round of voting on Sunday. Is it really because 18% of French people are anti-immigrant xenophobes, with a particular line in Islamophobia?
There is no doubt that, at times during this campaign, Ms Le Pen has sounded a note dangerously close to that of her father and predecessor as leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie. This was particularly true after Mohamed Merah shot dead seven people in and around Toulouse, after which she bellowed: “How many Mohamed Merahs in the boats, the aeroplanes, that arrive each day in France?”
But, in general, Ms Le Pen’s success over the past year or so has been to shift the party away from her father’s crude and nasty emphasis on immigration and anti-Semitism (with shades of neo-Nazism), towards more subtle concerns with what she calls „Islamification.“ She objects not to mosque-building, but to allowing Muslim prayers to take over the streets or to the spread of Salafism in France. She has called for immigration to be controlled, not stopped altogether.
At the same time, she has developed other themes in order to broaden her appeal. One pet favourite is the domination of “internationalist” thinking. Ms Le Pen is against open borders, open markets, open trade, and the euro. Such policies appeal in particular to industrial workers in large chunks of northern and eastern France who have been battered by job losses. Many come from families that traditionally voted Communist.
Another favourite theme of Ms Le Pen’s is a sort of anti-establishment, anti-Paris, anti-elitism, which she manages to carry off with panache given that she was brought up in a giant mansion just outside the capital. By making her political base the northern ex-mining town of Hénin-Beaumont, she has remodelled herself as the workers’ champion (see this report of mine).
Break down Sunday’s voting geographically, and you find some striking results. Ms Le Pen came top in Hénin-Beaumont, with 35%, ahead of both François Hollande on 27% and Mr Sarkozy on 16%. She now plans to run for a parliamentary seat there in June’s election, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins her first National Assembly seat.
All this to say that it is too simplistic to see Ms Le Pen’s score as a mere manifestation of French racism. Nor is it simply a protest against the system. People like her, and are not afraid to say so, in a way that few were about her father. Her electoral success reflects, rather, a mix of disappointment with Mr Sarkozy, despair at the level of joblessness, bewilderment in the face of globalisation, frustration at the impotence of Europe, and disillusion with the political class.
This is why I think it is wrong to assume, as some have, that Ms Le Pen’s voters will swing automatically behind Mr Sarkozy in the May 6th run-off. The extra few percentage points she achieved on Sunday over her best previous opinion-poll result almost exactly corresponds to the few points that the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon lost. These are voters cruising about on the fringes, fed up and not sure where to go next.
Hence the race now on to courting this vote. Mr Sarkozy has clearly decided to chase the far-right electorate. Yesterday he said that National Front voters should be “respected”, adding that their vote was a “vote of suffering, a vote of crisis.”
Even Mr Hollande said that he could “understand” the anger of Ms Le Pen’s voters, although not the way they cast their vote:
These are often workers who do not know what tomorrow will bring, pensioners who can’t cope any more, farmers who fear for the survival of their farms, the young who ask themselves: where is our future?
A new poll, which once again points to a victory for Mr Hollande over Mr Sarkozy of 54% to 46%, hints at how the first-round vote will be split. While on the left 91% of Mr Mélenchon’s votes will go to Mr Hollande, on the right only 47% of Ms Le Pen’s will go to Mr Sarkozy; 27% of them will back Mr Hollande, and the rest don’t know or will abstain.