Leading article: France's perilous flirtation with the extreme right

Once again the National Front has helped to set the tone and the terms for a presidential election

Share
Related Topics

The French presidential election campaign has thrown up its customary cast of colourful characters and, in recent weeks, a fast-moving succession of polls that show President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, running neck and neck to the finish. But tomorrow's election is the only poll that matters, and the map of French opinion it reveals will be as keenly awaited as ever. With one in four voters still said to be undecided as the bar came down on campaigning, the political future of France, and to an extent that of all Europe, is entering a two-week period of suspension.

The first round of any French presidential election can be described as a rehearsal for the real contest, between the two front-runners, and a playground for protest voters. That does not mean, however, that it has no significance. The left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has become a realistic contender for third place not just because he is, like many minority candidates, an attractive personality and an energetic campaigner, but because he has tapped into a strain of sentiment in France that is troubled by increasing social inequality. If his election performance matches his showing in the opinion polls, this could launch the far left into a position of national influence after the legislative elections in June.

Marine Le Pen, like her father before her, has played unconscionably on public misgivings about immigration and society's supposed loss of "Frenchness", despite at the same time trying to update and sanitise the party's image. Like her father, too, she threatens to be the dark horse coming up on the outside. That French voters drawn to the far right tend to dissemble their voting intentions has led to their actual performance being routinely underestimated, despite efforts to weight the opinion polls to compensate. The latest polls showed Ms Le Pen commanding as much as 17 per cent of the vote – which would equal the best National Front showing of recent years.

Thankfully, that would almost certainly not be enough to propel her to second place and into the run-off – emulating her father's cataclysmic "April surprise" of a decade ago. The inoculating effect of that 2002 vote and the more credible campaign of the Socialist candidate, Mr Hollande, compared with that of Lionel Jospin, both militate against Ms Le Pen reaching the second round. But a strong National Front performance still holds considerable dangers, showing – as it would – the continuing appeal of a xenophobic platform in France and perhaps presaging the return of the far right to the National Assembly.

Ms Le Pen's resort to anti-foreigner rhetoric in the wake of the Toulouse shootings last month must also carry much of the blame for the sharply rightward shift in Mr Sarkozy's electoral discourse as the campaign reached its latter stages. Once again, the National Front has helped to set the tone and the terms for an election that, to the credit of the French electorate as a whole, it has not the slightest prospect of winning.

The other chief criticism of the first-round campaign is that it has focused on personal character (diverse in the extreme) and national mood (gloomy), to the exclusion of the serious policy debate that France needs to have. But that is where the fascination, and the significance, of the next two weeks could lie. Assuming a classic duel between centre-right and centre-left, Mr Sarkozy against Mr Hollande, France – and Europe – must hope for a demonstration of democratic politics at its best and a debate that will really matter.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Event Management and Marketing Admin Support

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings Negotiator

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Central London based firm loo...

Recruitment Genius: Events / Conference Operations Manager

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls
 

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot