24/04/2012 13:08 BST | Updated 23/06/2012 06:12 BST

France is Turning 'Bleu Marine': the Existential Crisis of the French Right

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.‎