France was shocked yesterday by an opinion poll which suggested that the far-right leader Marine Le Pen could win the first round of the presidential election next spring.
Although the poll was framed in a rather dubious way, and one out of three people gave no opinion, the outcome was a deep humiliation for President Nicolas Sarkozy and a stark warning to his bickering would-be rivals on the centre-left.
Ms Le Pen has now doubled her opinion poll score in the space of four months – from 12 per cent to 23 per cent – revealing a deep anger with French politics-as-usual among voters of both the Right and the Left.
The Harris poll for Le Parisien put Mr Sarkozy in joint second place on 22 per cent with the Socialist party leader, Martine Aubry. This is the first opinion survey in French history to suggest that the Front National could come first in a national election.
Many politicians and commentators suggested that this was a wilfully rogue result. The runaway favourite to win the Socialist primary in November, and then contest the spring election, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, not Ms Aubry. All other recent presidential polls have put Mr Strauss-Kahn ahead in the first round next April, followed by Mr Sarkozy and then Ms Le Pen.
All the same, the poll fell like a thunder clap on French politics yesterday. Sources within Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) said it would strengthen the hand of parliamentarians already pressing for the president to be dumped in favour of a more consensual centre-right candidate.
In another poll on Saturday, in Le Figaro, a Sarkozy-supporting newspaper, the president fell to the lowest approval rating of any president in the Fifth Republic (that is, since 1958). Only 22 per cent of those questioned said they thought that he was doing a good job.
Socialist politicians suggested yesterday that Mr Sarkzoy had been caught in his own political trap. Since his anti-Rom migrant campaign last summer, he had frequently adopted far-right language and themes, they said. But the benefits have gone, not to Mr Sarkozy but to Ms Le Pen, as the new, avowedly moderate and attractive, face of the far right since she replaced her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in January.
The poll, however wayward, suggests that one of the "mainstream" parties could fail to reach the second-round run-off of two candidates next May.
Ms Le Pen, who has avoided her father's provocative language and declared herself a moderate patriot and a supporter of republican values, said yesterday: "Something big is happening. Faced with an ageing political class with ageing ideas, only the National Front offers people hope."