Marine Le Pen emerged as the kingmaker of the first round of France’s presidential elections on Sunday, April 22. She will announce which candidate she favours on May 1, although it is unlikely to be Nicolas Sarkozy. Alternatively, she could advise abstention.
It was interesting to note that over the past several months, the left-leaning media darlings in France had insisted that insecurity and immigration were low on the list of French people’s concerns. In fact, they claimed that these were the lowest priorities with regard to the presidential elections. No one was too concerned about the deteriorating state of cities like Paris and Marseille or provincial towns. France’s media personalities said that the economy and employment were the main preoccupations of the average Frenchman. Whilst that is true, they assured their audiences and readership that Marine Le Pen had no chance. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was the natural alternative for the disaffected voter. These Frenchmen, they told us, preferred the hard Left to the more mainstream socialism of François Hollande.
France’s MSM live in a Parisian bobo bubble. (‘Bobo’ — bourgeois bohemian.)
There is another France, however.
In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy presented himself authoritatively as the candidate who would encourage job security, stem immigration and make France a safer place to live. Five years on and many French — and regular visitors to l’Hexagone — have noticed higher unemployment, lower living standards and a rise in crime. France’s working class in particular has seen more factories close with jobs sent overseas to China and other countries offering low-cost factory production. As such, many of these voters believe that Sarkozy has betrayed them.
And so, on Sunday, a number of them, including a handful from minority groups, decided to register their dissatisfaction via a protest vote for Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN).
Now the media are listening — for a while, anyway. The FN phenomenon has dominated the media over the past two days.
Except that it is no phenomenon at all. The media tried to steer the first round results left and many French turned right. Although Hollande pipped Sarkozy at the post, the incumbent could still win the second round on Sunday, May 6. However, FN voters will be critical. Can Sarkozy woo them as he did five years ago for the second round? Many online have already said that they would stay at home or vote blanc.
How did the FN vote look in demographic terms? Le Monde had a good bar chart in their live coverage on Monday, April 23, which, unfortunately, is no longer available. It was interesting to see that the FN picked up a number of votes equally between the working class and the middle-class. It also showed that Le Pen gathered support among voters aged 18 to 60, especially those between 18 and 24. Elderly voters, however, were least likely to vote for her, putting paid to the notion that the FN was incapable of engaging with a younger demographic, the meme the media have been pushing for the past few years.
Not all of Le Pen voters in 2012 are members of the FN nor are they adherents. This was a protest vote against Sarkozy as well as the vanishing differences between conservatives and socialists. FN supporters call the two parties ‘UMPS’ (UMP and PS), one in the same when in government.
The FN is not a natural ally of conservative capitalism, despite its label as a ‘far-right’ party. According to Libération, 31% intend to vote for Hollande in the second round and 21% will abstain. Granted, 48% are likely to vote for Sarkozy, but they are unlikely to be the normal target group of the FN and are instead more populist UMP voters who see broken promises all around the country. (Le Monde reports that 27% of FN voters will vote Hollande, 33% will abstain and 40% will vote for Sarkozy on May 6.)
Here in the UK in 2010 — and in previous years — I occasionally encountered people who were tempted to vote BNP. All said that they had normally voted Labour: ‘It was the party of the working man.’ As Labour adjusted their policies to attract a new type of voter, these people felt left behind. They felt that Labour was making too many allowances for social disorder and delinquency. These disaffected voters still held to hard work and social order. I always asked, ‘Why not vote Tory?’ but that was a step too far for them. To them, the Tories are the party of the Sloanes, the Hoorays and the professional class. (Now in 2012, I’ll grant that the Tories are changing, too, becoming more like Labour.)
Like their British counterparts, most FN voters are suspicious of classic conservatism. On April 23, broadcaster Eric Brunet (Radio Monte Carlo) posited that Marine Le Pen is François Hollande’s ‘best ally’. Her call for an abstention only helps him step up to the presidency. A UMP spokesperson agreed, adding that the FN is ‘very statist, communitarian’ and built around social issues. Indeed, the disconnect between France’s ‘far right’ and conservative political parties — despite their respect for family values and the Church — is such that the twain will never meet. The UMP are eager to woo back their disaffected voters from 2007 but have no intention of forming alliances with the FN. Similarly, Marine Le Pen distances herself from the UMP — and Sarkozy.
The FN represents a working class Left, disillusioned with both Marxism and capitalism. Jean-Marie Le Pen — Marine’s father — got on better with left-wing rather than right-wing French presidents. He and François Mitterand had a certain understanding and were said to have a cordial enough relationship; it was during Mitterand’s administration that Le Pen began receiving improved media coverage and won a seat in Parliament. By contrast, Le Pen distanced himself from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and said that Jacques Chirac was ‘worse than [Lionel] Jospin’. The FN has been increasingly careful to present itself as neither left nor right. Jean-Marie Le Pen said that it is ‘socially on the left and economically on the right’. Yet, it is a party of protectionism, which is no doubt what attracts many who have seen their jobs going overseas or vanishing altogether.
The FN — despite what the media say — is not a natural home for conservatives or capitalists. However it evolves over the next several years — perhaps under a new name — it cannot shake off its dark history.
As I mentioned the other day, the French have the luxury of registering a protest vote the first time around. Slogans such as Sarkozy’s ‘work more to earn more’ turned out to be insulting as did the clear implication that the unemployed were skivers. They worry for their and their children’s future. People feel unsafe on the streets and on public transport. Crime and social tension are popping up in places which used to be quiet and peaceful.
Now it is up to Nicolas Sarkozy to decide what to do with these votes in the next several days and turn them to his advantage on May 6. He could well be doing too little too late, and seven million disillusioned voters might just stay at home.
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen and her strategists will be gearing up for the parliamentary elections in several weeks’ time.