Marine Le Pen’s big push is about to begin – and she’ll take more stopping than her father

When it comes to the 2017 election I hope the  French take fright again

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The Independent Online

There is every reason to examine closely the results of the French regional elections due to be held on Sunday – even in the midst of a British general election. For opinion polls in France are suggesting that Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, the Front National, might gain the largest share of votes cast. And this would be significant. These local polls are one of a series of stepping stones to the presidential election that will be held in 2017.

It is hard to conceive that a president from the far right might govern France. But everywhere traditional two-party systems are crumbling, and outsiders – whether from the far right or from the far left – replace familiar faces. Greece is a recent, vivid example, where the radical left-wing party, Syriza, has won power. In fact, France now has a political system composed of three parties, each of similar weight and ambition – the Socialist Party; Nicolas Sarkozy’s traditional right-wing party, the UMP; and now, level-pegging, the Front National.

Nor should one forget the rude shock to the system inflicted by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the 2002 presidential election. The opinion polls at the time were suggesting that the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, would face the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, in the second round, which pitted the two best-placed candidates against each other. In the event, Jean-Marie, who was much more extreme than his daughter is today, beat Jospin in the first round. This was quite an achievement; it meant that there would be the first ever appearance of a far-right candidate for president in the second round.

Chirac won the run-off with a crushing 82.2 per cent of the vote, but this experience so shocked the French that immediately afterwards the Front National began to lose support. In the 2007 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen came fourth with 11 per cent of the vote. And in legislative elections later that year, the party dropped to 4.3 per cent of votes cast. But when Marine succeeded her father in 2011, she started to rebuild the party, as events – high unemployment, increasing immigration, and exasperation with the dictates of the European Union – began to have their effect. And she contrived to appear less extreme than Jean-Marie.

Recently Marine has been scaling the peaks. In the 2012 presidential election in which François Hollande beat Sarkozy, she came third in the first round with 17.9 per cent of the votes. Then in the 2014 European Parliament election, the Front National finished first with 24.86 per cent of the vote and took 24 of France’s 74 seats. Interestingly, on the same occasion, Nigel Farage’s Ukip also came top of the British poll, outshining the Front National with a slightly higher proportion of the votes (26.6 per cent). On Sunday in the regional elections, the French party is expected to make a further advance to around 30 per cent of the votes cast.

While the policy positions of the Front National reflect contemporary issues – protectionism, a zero-tolerance approach to law and order, anti-immigration and Euroscepticism – they nonetheless fit into a long French tradition. Because it springs from the shock of the French Revolution in 1789, the ethos of the French right is very different from that of the English Conservative Party, which finally, when all is said and done, means what it says on the tin – to conserve.

The last great victory of the far right in France was a curious one because it came immediately after the German invasion in 1940. The French had signed an armistice with the Germans rather than formally surrendering, though it came to the same thing. But the old, widely venerated French soldier Marshal Pétain was able to form a government to run the southern half of France under German tutelage, the so-called Vichy state, named after the spa town where it had its headquarters. And whereas De Gaulle had wished to fight the German invaders, Pétain wanted to fight the “enemy within”. Who was this enemy within? The communists and the Jews.

Tony Judt, the British historian, wrote of the Vichy regime: “The national inclination for blinkered archaism, the distaste for modernisation and reform, contributed to the coming of Vichy, whose promise of a return to pre-modern values and institutions echoed all too reassuringly the instincts of the political class and the electorate alike.” Its roots went back to the middle of the 19th century. “The things that were said and done in France in the years 1940 to 1944 were said and done by men who had been publicly active long before 1940.”

It is this back-history that makes me take the resurgence of the far right in France more seriously than I otherwise might be inclined to do. When it comes to the presidential election in 2017, I shall be hoping that the French take fright again if Marine Le Pen gets into the second round. According to the polls, some 71 per cent of Chirac’s votes were cast simply “to block Le Pen”. In that respect I hope history will repeat itself.