France is turning "bleu-Marine", a play on words which refers to the National Front (FN)'s strong showing in the first round of the French Presidential elections. 18% of the vote is the strongest polling yet for Marine Le Pen's party, out-doing even her father's 16.9% in the 2002 elections, where he made it to the second round. The success of the National Front was in stark contrast to the poor showing of France's Right. Sarkozy has the dubious privilege of being the Fifth Republic's most unpopular president, with a 64% disapproval rating, and the first incumbent not to take the lead in the first round. But these sobering findings clearly hadn't dented the President's self-belief on sunday as he delivered a "victory" speech, in which he claimed his supporters had 'proven the polls wrong' - despite the rather accurate predictions that he'd lose out to Holland in the first round, with around 26% of the vote. Which he did.
His hope now will be to galvanise the Far-right and Centrist votes to compete with the Leftist block, totalling 41%, which gives the socialist candidate, Francois Hollande a solid basis on which to achieve the winning 54%, predicted by an IPSOS poll in the second round.
As Sarkozy seeks to salvage the situation in the run up to May 6th, his Sunday speech offered a glimpse of things to come as he focused on key National Front issues of immigration, border controls and national identity. In recent years, the UMP has been split by its veer to the right under the direction of Sarkozy's adviser, Patrick Buisson, considered the architect of the UMP's "LePen-isation". Many blame the strategy for alienating traditional right-wing voters and changing the very nature of the neo-Gaulliste party. Others see Le Pen's success as a vindication and evidence of the need to move further on this terrain. The fact Sarkozy can count on 60% of Le Pen's votes in the second round, poses some existential questions about the very nature of the Right in France.
A regional breakdown of the vote showed Le Pen achieved high scores in the industrial North Est, where she often came second, behind the Left for whom the North is not traditional terrain and where Sarkozy had scored highly in 2007. The North Est and France's industrial regions were those worst hit by the economic crisis in 2008-2009, with a significant increase in unemployment. Today jobless claims are at a twelve year high across France. In addition, France has lost competitiveness. Its exports have lagged behind those of its major trading partners in the past decade, labour costs have grown and whilst the economy is sluggish, workers are faced with reduced purchasing power. This squeeze on the working class under the UMP's rule means many are looking elsewhere. The breakdown of votes shows Sarkozy lost many seats in central France, the 6th largest industrial region, where the Far Left made significant advances and 29% of Blue-collar workers now vote Le Pen.
But the Far-Right has also benefited from Sarkozy's tactical inclusion of Far-right themes into the mainstream political discourse. Many of Sarkozy's election pledges seemingly acknowledged the problematisation of issues raised by the FN, including the halal meat saga and the proposed rethink of the passport-free Schengen zone. This strategy assumed the incorporation of such issues into the UMP's agenda, could garner more votes away from the NF, but appears instead to have legitimised Le Pen's discourse and ensured the perennity of her party on the French political scene. What's more, Sarkozy's perceived failure to address these issues, alongside his acknowledgement of their importance, has bolstered the FN's agenda.
Marine Len Pen's speech on Sunday suggests she now views her party as the 'true' Right, in the face of a weak and discredited UMP. What is certain is that her historic success in this first round has shifted the political terrain in France and conveyed a degree of respectability she has worked hard to foster. Since taking over from her father, Marine has morphed the party's image, seeking to distance it from its racist reputation and consolidating its platform through a solidly anti-EU focus, broadening its appeal. The message of curbing immigration and combating a European elite by taking France out of the Eurozone, is designed to protect an allegedly threatened French identity.
Alongside proposals to protect small businesses and ban supermarkets in towns of under 30 000 people, she speaks to a France suspicious of globalisation and of the EU's austerity plans, in a country where only 31% of people agree that a free market economy is the best system. It is amongst the squeezed working and middle classes, who feel that Europe is failing to protect them against global competition, that her message of protectionism, both social and economic, has found an audience.
Last year, academics warned of the "France of the invisibles" where almost 40% of the electorate in rural and suburban areas, as well as in towns hit by deindustrialisation, feel abandoned by the democratic process and unrepresented in their concerns. The consequence is the emergence of a more radical political vote, towards the Far-Left but more so towards the Far Right whose combination of a focus on social and identity issues has broad appeal. Worryingly, this is no longer perceived to be a protest vote, but a vote of adherence to the FN's agenda. 64% of FN voters state their support for Marine le Pen as a candidate, and only 36% describe theirs as a "protest vote". Amongst FN voters, immigration polls as the highest concern (62 %), followed by insecurity (44 %) and purchasing power (43 %) and Le Pen has successfully taped into this combination of social and economic conservativism.
While Hollande may be elected France's first Socialist president in 17 years, it was under another socialist, Francois Mitterand that the National Front first made headways in response to austerity measures in the 1980s. In 2012, their presence is far more entrenched and they'll be facing a candidate whom only 25 % of voters believe can improve the situations in France. If he fails, an emboldened Far-right is waiting in the wings.
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