Le Pen’s party challenging strongly as apathetic electorate switches off

Far right could lead European poll in France, writes Lara Marlowe

If Marine Le Pen leads her National Front party to victory, she improves her chances of making it to the 2017 presidential run-off. Photograph: Reuters

If Marine Le Pen leads her National Front party to victory, she improves her chances of making it to the 2017 presidential run-off. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, May 16, 2014, 01:00

France will elect 74 MEPs on Sunday week. The government has not organised a civic information campaign, as it usually does for elections.

Nearly two-thirds of poll respondents say they have little or no interest and national television networks refused to broadcast the May 15th debate among candidates for the presidency of the EU Commission. Abstention is expected to reach 60 per cent.

The campaign has little to do with Europe and a lot to do with French domestic politics. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) is neck-and-neck with the conservative UMP in polls, with both parties predicted to win between 20 and 22 per cent of the vote. The FN, which has three MEPs in the outgoing parliament, hopes to win at least 20 seats.

If it comes in first, it will be the biggest upset in French politics since Marine’s father Jean-Marie made it to the run-off in the presidential election 12 years ago.

If Le Pen leads the FN to victory, she improves her chances of making it to the 2017 presidential run-off. If the ruling socialists perform as badly as expected, she will demand that president François Hollande dissolve the National Assembly. There is no reason to believe he would do so.

Anti-European

Le Pen’s is the most stridently anti-European party in France. She considers the May 25th poll to be a “referendum” on France’s membership in the EU and euro zone, which she would like to end. “We have to get rid of it all! Rise up against it all!” she said in a campaign rally. “Everything has failed in their EU. Everything, without exception.”

The UMP hopes for a high abstention rate because FN voters belong to categories which abstain most, labourers and the unemployed, while typical UMP voters (shopkeepers, business owners and the retired) are more motivated to go to the polls. The UMP’s victory in March municipal elections was based on the deep unpopularity of Hollande, the same argument it is using in the European election.

“Since people don’t care about Europe, I’m campaigning on rejection of Hollande,” said Renaud Muselier, UMP candidate in the southeast. In its tract titled “10 reasons to vote UMP in the European elections,” the party lists “Because I want to stop socialism,” as number one, and “Because I refuse to allow the FN to threaten France,” as number two.

The UMP is deeply divided between federalists, led by the MEP Alain Lamassoure, and sovereignists, led by Nicolas Sarkozy’s former speech writer Henri Guaino. In an open letter published by Le Figaro, 39 UMP sovereignists said they want to “change everything” in Europe. Former UMP prime minister Alain Juppé said he was shocked by Guaino’s statement that he cannot vote for Lamassoure, and suggested Guaino should leave the party.

At best, the socialists hope to equal their mediocre score in the 2009 election (16.5 per cent, 14 seats) .They are divided on economic policy, with Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls promising to meet the EU’s 3 per cent limit on deficit spending, while the leader of the socialist party (PS) continues to rail against the requirement. After lying low during the municipal campaign, socialist leaders expressed themselves late in the European campaign, Hollande in a page-long open letter in Le Monde; Valls on television on May 11th.

They claim a vote for the PS is a vote “in favour of growth and employment” – neither of which have materialised under socialist rule. The PS’s best known candidates are a failed education minister and a steel industry union leader, neither of whom has caught on. So the PS is relying on the candidacy of the German Martin Schulz for the presidency of the commission to motivate voters. “For the first time, voters will chose the future of the European Commission. How many know that today?” Hollande wrote in Le Monde. (His assertion is not necessarily true, since the Lisbon Treaty says only that heads of state and government must “take account” of the results in choosing the next president.)

Daniel Cohn-Bendit
In 2009, the green party ate into the PS’s score thanks to vigorous campaigning by Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Having pulled out of the socialist government, and with the charismatic green leader retiring, they are not likely to perform as well this time.

The centrist alliance of the UDI and Modem are the only unabashedly pro-European party. They won 8.5 per cent of the vote and six seats in 2009.

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