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: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us