Archie Bland: Rise of the far right in France? It's the economy, stupid

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The Independent Online

Right-wing populism is, to be sure, a troubling presence in British politics. There's no question that the voices of the likes of the BNP and the EDL are as persistent and as seductive as they have ever been. But if they ever seem too much for you, you only need to look across the channel for an awful warning about how much worse it could be.

The success of Marine Le Pen's Front National in Sunday's first round of the French presidential election is no anomaly. Back in 2002, Marine's father Jean-Marie took 16.9 per cent of the vote, a troubling enough figure itself. This time, the party polled 17.9 per cent, more than 6.4 million votes. Marine Le Pen's achievement is to meld her father's xenophobic nationalism with a more superficially cuddly populism given weight by her plausibility as a mainstream political figure.

The ugly consequences for France's political culture are not hard to see. Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign was shot through with gestures designed to win over Le Pen's supporters; since the results were announced, his desperation to cling on to power has seen him go still further and cluck sympathetically about their understandable fear that they might be "dispossessed of their way of life".

The most frustrating thing about Sarkozy's argument is his claim the success of Le Pen and her fellow travellers is the fault of the left. "I can see that on the left, they are holding their noses, they don't understand this vote," he said. "Countries that succeed are those that respect the nation and the national identity."

In fact, though, he's the one who has been in power, not his challenger François Hollande. It's his France that Front National voters don't like, even as he has made incursions into the political territory that should really be theirs alone.

Their vote is a protest vote, as Le Pen's speeches regularly make clear. The truth is that, while the immigrant might make a useful punchbag, the real subject of the protest is economic. In most of the countries across the Continent where xenophobic nationalists are succeeding, they're tacking a far-left economic populism on to their message as a direct result of the austerity programme that appears to be driving Europe towards recession.

It's this reality, not the left's refusal to adopt Le Pen's vile clothing, that has given Front National such a fillip. And if Mr Sarkozy wins the second round, such frightening circumstances will only become more embedded. Marine Le Pen has refused to endorse either of the remaining candidates. But privately, she must be hoping desperately that Mr Sarkozy will prevail.