In the past week, Nicolas Sarkozy, has become a persona non-grata within his own party. A series of centre-right regional barons have said “thanks, but no thanks” to their party leader. They would, they said, prefer the former president to keep well away from their campaign to deny Marine Le Pen victory in the second round of regional elections on 13 December.
Whatever the final result, Mr Sarkozy’s fall from grace points to longer-term, disturbing implications of the new surge in support for the far-right Front National (FN). According to a series of opinion polls in recent days, three key races – in the north-west, the south and the north-east – are very close, but the FN may fall short of its ambition to govern a French region for the first time.
If Ms Le Pen claims even one of the newly drawn French “super-regions”, the far-right flag will fly over a significant chunk of western Europe for the first time since the death of Franco in Spain in 1975.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, head of the Socialist national government, has been clear on the threat from the FN. “We have reached a historic moment,” he said in the run-up to the weekend polls and that a victory for the FN could lead to “civil war” in France.
Even if Ms Le Pen fails, however, the FN will have achieved a new high-water mark of electoral success. The party, which has allegedly broken with its anti-Semitic and racist origins, is now threatening to supplant the centre right as one of the two main forces in French politics.
Its success has made a mockery of the boast made by Mr Sarkozy, a former president, when he returned as party leader last year, that only he could check the rise of the FN. It has discredited his policy of attracting FN voters by talking like the FN (except on Europe and trade protectionism).
“The more we talk in hard-right language the more we give credence to the absurd propositions of the far right,” said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, leader of the centrist UDI. Presidential alarm bells are already ringing – and in the columns of the loyal Le Figaro newspaper. Until a few weeks ago, it seemed that the next president would inevitably be from the centre right. The rise – and rise – of the FN raises the prospect that the next president will be … the unpopular incumbent Socialist, François Hollande.
France now has three political forces of almost equal strength: centre left, centre right and far right. This is not a situation that can last.
The system tolerates a proliferation of parties and alliances at local and parliamentary level – but not at is apex, the presidency. Only two candidates can reach the second round of a presidential election.
“French politics is now divided into three,” said the centrist Senator Hervé Marseille. “Bismarck said: ‘When you are in a three-way fight, you had better be one of the two.’ ”
Ms Le Pen seems assured of reaching the second round in May 2017. At present, it seems that her second round opponent might be Mr Hollande rather than Mr Sarkozy or another centre-right candidate. In other words, the rise of the FN presents him with a potential “golden ticket” for an unlikely re-election in a bitterly divisive and destructive presidential campaign in 18 months’ time.
The results of last week’s election were also a stinging rejection for the ruling Socialists, especially in the former strongholds of the left in the north-west and the old industrial areas of the north-east. However, a mid-term reverse, when unemployment is at record levels, was to be expected.
The results represented a historic calamity for the centre right – the force which has ruled France for more than half of the past 70 years.
Ms Le Pen’s FN came just ahead of Mr Sarkozy’s Les Républicains and two allied centrist parties in the nationwide vote by roughly 28 per cent to 27 per cent. The FN almost wiped out the centre right in some areas of the deep south. With the help of its Socialist enemies, who withdrew last week in two big regions to “block” the FN, the centre right may do cosmetically well in the second and final round of the regional elections on 13 December.
Ms Le Pen came first in the opening round in one of the regions – Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie – with more than 40 per cent of the vote, while her niece Marion Maréchal-Le-Pen topped the vote in the other, a key south-eastern region that includes the Riviera coast, called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
In that case, Mr Sarkozy will proclaim a triumph, but many senior figures in his party – including several once regarded as “Sarkozyste” – will not be duped.
The newly named Républicains are in danger of being squeezed out by the FN as the “natural” party of opposition – and therefore the potential party of power.
As soon as the results are declared tonight, another election campaign will begin – for an “open primary” at the end of next year which will choose the centre right presidential candidate.
Mr Sarkozy’s chances of winning have been severely damaged, but centre-right leaders fear that any other candidate – most likely the former prime minister, Alain Juppé – may also be flattened by the far-right steamroller.
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