The Le Pen Factor

France’s Presidential Elections

As with every election, the readers of the tea leaves often have a habit of misreading the signs. Illiteracy stumbles in.  Confusion becomes its own most valued currency.  The first round of the French presidential elections revealed that Marine Le Pen has achieved formidable gains – somewhere between 18 and 20 percent.

Such figures were not anticipated.  The gains made by Le Pen demonstrate that she is more than a mere spoiler. More significantly, it shows on par, if not better performance, than that of her father’s effort in 2002, when Jean-Marie found himself a terror of the establishment, and particularly of the socialists.  The socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was well and truly trounced, leaving French voters with the agony of voting for Jacques Chirac in an effort to keep the founder of the National Front out.

Marine Le Pen’s suggestions are colourful and, in many cases, appealing.  The electorate has not been swung by accusations of insanity levelled against her by the supporters of the Front de Gauche contender Jean-Luc Mélechon, who may in time become a damp squib, despite previously doing a nice and inspiring line in rhetoric.  In fact, it might be said that his efforts have gone some way to invigorating what was threatening to be a tedious electoral race.  Those votes cast in his favour will probably be gobbled in subsequent runoffs by the main socialist candidate, François Hollande, who Mélechon described as being as ‘useful as the captain of a pedalo in a storm.’

The euro has taken a true trashing, as has its institutional framework, and capitalising on hostility has been the Far Right’s trademark in these elections.  Le Pen has promised to abandon the Common Agricultural Policy, to leave the Schengen zone as a matter of formality, and reduce legal immigration to France to a paltry 10,000 a year.  Nicolas Sarkozy has found himself having to play the game of the Right as well, making himself something of an insincere replica.  Inside Sarko is a Le Pen waiting to get out with a certain cruel dedication. Witness, in view of this, the expulsion in 2011 of 32,912 illegal immigrants from France.  His election platform, however, has one more zero in terms of allowing legal immigrants into the country.

The socialists should also have every reason to be worried.  The centre-left Hollande may have obtained 28.6 percent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 27.1 percent, but Le Pen’s voters find themselves as arbiters of the broader electoral consequences at stake.  Blue collar votes have been heading Le Pen’s way, notably from the pools of the estranged unemployed. In some circles, the issue of Europe ranks less than the issue of chronic employment.  The threat of abstention amongst the voters remains ever present, despite the French sense of political engagement.

Whoever wins will find escaping the viciousness of austerity hard to avoid.  Neither of the main candidates is what he claims to be – Hollande having shed his militant stance on protectionism, and Sarko no longer the obsessive high priest of neoliberalism.  While the French will continue to indulge the sense of singularity, their politicians will offer another reality – one where technocratic austerity reigns supreme in a country where public debt levels hover around 90 percent.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.