France went to sleep last night knowing that almost a fifth of those who felt compelled to vote in the first round of the presidential election chose a party formed on an openly neo-fascist platform. Although the Front National’s Marine Le Pen failed to access the second round, her result is far more concerning than her father’s in 2002. Jean-Marie Le Pen received just over 16% of the vote and a ticket to the second round, but that particular election also witnessed a record level of abstention. This year, France saw one of its biggest turnouts since the birth of the Fifth Republic with ‘only’ 20% abstaining.
Therefore, while the Socialists celebrated Francois Hollande’s strong lead, and deservedly, the mood was in part dampened by the historic result of the FN. More importantly, its acceptance as a serious and normalised contender on the French political landscape proved of utmost concern.
Similarly, Mélenchon was not able to fully express his satisfaction at his impressive result (11%), and proclaim the possible rebirth of a strong left-wing alternative in France. While the Front de Gauche might have sown the seeds for the growth of another strong contender in French politics, Marine Le Pen’s exploit lessened its claim to have gathered the discontented.
On the right, Sarkozy’s UMP appears divided and perhaps irremediably damaged after the president’s failure to take the lead in the first round. It is striking too that Le Pen has already announced she will lead the opposition in the next five years. Not surprisingly, her team has not called for its electorate to vote for Sarkozy. Instead, it is already calling for UMP members to join the FN in a hope to retain their seats in the upcoming legislative election.
François Bayrou’s centre Mouvement Démocratique has also suffered from the radicalisation of politics. From a strong third position in 2007, he fell to fifth, and less than 10% of the vote. This was also most certainly aided by the election becoming an ultimatum for Sarkozy, which drew many to vote for Hollande to express their frustration.
As the first opinion polls were released late last night, Hollande was predicted a clear winner for the second round with a 6 to 8% margin. Obviously, many of Le Pen’s voters will return to Sarkozy, as he will most certainly appeal to them further between the two rounds. However, if Le Pen does not give the UMP candidate her approval, it is unlikely that the transfer will be enough for Sarkozy to obtain a majority. This is even less likely when considering that Sarkozy would need to appeal to both Bayrou’s centre electorate and Le Pen’s, an almost impossible feat at this time.
If the polls can be trusted, Hollande should be given a clear mandate to lead France through the continuing European crisis. Yet, if elected, the dispassionate ‘Marshmallow man’ will inherit a most uncomfortable position. His mandate will clearly rest on a rejection of Sarkozy’s politics. A large portion of his second round vote will come from the more radical part of the left, born from the revival of the communist party within the Front de Gauche. Needless to say that these voters will expect a real rupture from the politics undertaken in the past ten years and a return to a more social state and a more inclusive and political conception of Europe.
This mandate is bound to clash with the interests of the more economically-focused European project. Angela Merkel has already made it clear that Sarkozy’s defeat would lead to a more complicated relationship between France and Germany, the two pillars of the European Union. Without Germany’s support, it is doubtful that the Socialist will manage to implement much in terms of European politics. At the same time, by keeping with the austerity lines currently in place, it is impossible that Hollande will not face a strong backlash from his supporters.
One can only hope that Hollande’s presidency would be influenced by the FN threat. By calling for her supporters to abstain, Le Pen will make it clear that she does not want to mingle with those in power, and wants to govern on her own terms. While this is a typical strategy of the extreme right, it could prove all the more successful now the FN has been accepted as a mainstream contender. This will be particularly potent in a society deeply distrustful of politicians.
Last night, it already seemed clear to most commentators that Sarkozy’s populist strategy had failed to grant him a second mandate. It had however succeeded in making the populist ideas he had borrowed from the Le Pens a very real threat, and placed a heavy sword over the next French president. Hollande will have the terrible responsibility of choosing between a truly left-wing platform with many powerful enemies, and toeing the more economic rationalist line and face the wrath of both his left-wing partners, and more worryingly a powerful extreme right.
First published in the Conversation