John Lichfield: With a smile not a snarl, the French far right is gaining ground

There are warnings for democratic politics in Europe. Marine Le Pen is a likeable spokeswoman for a new strain of moderate intolerance

Thursday 10 March 2011 01:00 GMT

Consider two startling facts. Fact one: Marine Le Pen was to have been a guest on the French Jewish radio station Radio J, this Sunday. Fact two: a poll has shown Ms Le Pen leading in the first round of the presidential election next spring. Marine's Holocaust-minimising father, Jean-Marie, was always strictly persona non grata to the broadcast voice of the Jewish community in France.

After only two months as the beguiling new face of the French far right, his daughter persuaded Radio J that she was a respectable politician like any other. The station was forced to withdraw the invitation last night after protests from other Jewish organisations. And the internet poll placing her ahead in the presidential race may, or may not, have been a rogue survey. All the same, something big and disturbing is happening across the Channel. French politics has gone hors piste.

There are no well-worn roads, no satellite guidance systems, to tell you – or even tell French politicians – what to expect before the first round of voting next April. The presidential campaign is, and may remain, a three-way tie between an unpopular and panicky centre-right President, a stumbling and divided centre-left "opposition" and a freshly laundered but still anti-immigrant, anti-European and ultra-nationalist Right.

There are many French reasons why this has happened. But there are also wider lessons, or warnings, for the future of democratic politics in Europe and the West. Marine Le Pen is an effective and likeable spokeswoman for a new strain of moderate intolerance – white collar rather than blue collar; educated, not just ignorant; Ukip not just BNP – which is already powerful in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Austria. There are also some likenesses – although Marine Le Pen repudiates them – with the rise of the Tea Party movement in the United States. But, first, let us look at France.

Nicolas Sarkozy's supporters (thinning by the day) plead that he is paying the price for trying to "reform France". They suggest that he will be able to offer a convincing argument for re-election next spring, based on his reform of the pension system and planned reform of the tax system. Er, "c'est tout". In truth, Sarkozy is paying for having muddled his modest attempts at reform with cynical appeals to the authoritarian, anti-migrant right. At the last election in 2002, he built a system of political plumbing which allowed him to siphon votes from a flagging Le Pen senior. By doing so, the President inadvertently created a two-way channel. The support that he once took from the National Front is now being sucked back through the pipe, with interest, by the fragrant Marine Le Pen.

What exactly is the difference, voters are entitled to ask, between the National Front and the harsher voices in Sarkozy's entourage? One Sarko-supporting member of parliament called this week for illegal immigrants escaping the civil strife in North Africa to be "put straight back on the boat". The President is also paying the price, at a time of the "squeezed middle", for recklessly allowing himself to be linked with the super-rich. Worst of all, he still does not act and look like a president.

In a recent television address to the nation, a kind of "King's Speech" for the TV age, Sarkozy came over as shrill and small (not just in size). Imagine a malevolent version of Ricky Gervais playing King George VI, instead of Colin Firth. All of this should have cleared an electoral boulevard for the main party of opposition, the Parti Socialiste. Not a bit of it. Even the Socialist "king over the water", Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former finance minister now chief executive of the IMF in Washington, trailed Ms Le Pen in last week's poll. Other leading candidates, such as the party leader, Martine Aubry, and former leader, François Hollande, did slightly worse.

The capacity for self-destruction of the French centre-left is boundless. Unfortunately, nothing new ever seems to emerge from the ruins. The main Socialist candidates will fight an open primary race from June to November. The intention is to anoint a nationally acceptable contender and to test a plausible alternative programme for government. Instead, the Socialists will be knocking lumps off one another for eight months while Ms Le Pen plays Joan of Arc. Maybe. As I said, the satellite guidance systems for French electoral politics have broken down.

It is possible, out of the fog of the immediate future, to conjure up an optimistic scenario for the centre-left. France, shocked by last weekend's poll result, will recoil from Ms Le Pen but will not return to Sarkozy. Mr Strauss-Kahn will, finally, throw his hat into the ring and a powerful tide of opinion will build in his favour. Maybe. Maybe.

If not, the two-round presidential election next spring will become a game of roulette. Only two candidates go through to the final round. If Marine Le Pen is one of them – even if she tops the first-round poll –she is very unlikely to win in the second round. Moderate voters of both Right and Left would, probably, pinch their noses and vote in largish numbers for either Sarkozy or, say, Strauss-Kahn. One of the bizarre implications of last weekend's poll is that Marine Le Pen may be Sarkozy's best, and only, chance of re-election.

Marine has shed her father's more or less overt anti-Semitism and obsession with the Second World War. She has called the Holocaust the "summum of inhumanity." She has created, with a smile rather than a snarl, an incoherent programme: France-first, state intervention; discrimination against racial and religious minorities; and, implicitly, French withdrawal from Europe. The more French voters imagine her as president, the more, one hopes, they will recoil. But her rapid success reflects more than just the poisonous vacuum in French "mainstream" politics. Like the Tea Parties and the other new populist parties in Europe, she cleverly exploits the hunger for "identity" and simple "values" in a threateningly "global" world. She surfs on the rise of China and decline of the West; the erosion in middle-class living standards; the screw-you arrogance of bankers; the threat of extremist Islam; the contempt for elites fostered, sometimes reasonably, by the internet and by WikiLeaks. For elegant populism, the times have never been better.

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