Le Pen keeps Sarkozy in race - but at a huge cost

Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The National Front may well have subtly shifted the way the next president, whoever he might be, will rule, writes RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC

MARINE LE Pen promised a surprise, and duly delivered it. The far-right leader’s final score in the first round of France’s presidential election, 17.9 per cent, was short of the 20 per cent she predicted, but it was a thunderclap loud enough to jolt her rivals, leave the outcome finely balanced and establish her as the third force in French politics.

Never before has the National Front achieved such a high score — not even in 2002, when its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, caused a shock by qualifying for the run-off against the eventual winner, Jacques Chirac.

Just a year after she took the leadership, Marine Le Pen has almost doubled her father’s score of five years ago and will feel her efforts to “detoxify” the party have been vindicated.

François Hollande of the Socialist Party remains the frontrunner to win the run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy on May 6th – opinion polls say he leads the incumbent by 54 per cent to 46 per cent – but Le Pen’s high score has made the outcome a little more uncertain. She may have been knocked out, but even in her absence she may well set the terms of the debate.

The dynamics of the run-off normally require both candidates to tack towards the centre, but with Le Pen’s 6.3 million voters now vital to Sarkozy’s hope of winning re-election, he has no choice but to veer towards them. He already has; within an hour of the first projected results being announced on Sunday night, Sarkozy gave a nod to the right flank by vowing to tighten border controls, draft new immigration rules and crack down on crime.

“In a world that is changing so fast, people’s concern about preserving their way of life is the central issue of this election,” he said.

Will it work? Polls suggest 60 per cent of Le Pen’s voters intend to switch to Sarkozy in the second round, while 18 per cent will choose Hollande and 22 per cent plan to abstain. But securing a majority of far-right voters won’t be enough for Sarkozy; to win, he must also attract significant support among the 9 per cent who sided with the centrist François Bayrou.

The problem – and the reason the Hollande camp – were quietly confident yesterday – is that Le Pen voters tend to have very little in common with Bayrou voters. The more Sarkozy talks about new immigration controls or strikes a hostile note on the EU, the more centrists will abandon him. The more he tries to balance his rhetoric and speak to both camps, the more he risks sounding incoherent and pleasing nobody.

Hollande too must fish for votes in different pools, but his task looks somewhat easier. The socialist is assured of overwhelming support (81 per cent, according to polls) among the 11 per cent of voters who chose the left radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

He is also attracting a third of Bayrou voters – about the same share as Sarkozy – and 18 per cent of Le Pen’s supporters, many of whom are blue-collar workers who previously voted for the left.

And whereas Sarkozy saw his support fall significantly on Sunday among groups that were vital to his success in 2007, such as low-income workers (down from 26 to 18 per cent) and those without a third-level education (down from 36 to 18 per cent), Hollande has lifted the socialist vote across all categories. He raised his party’s support among young people, the working class, pensioners and liberal professionals – all important demographic groups.

It’s clear that Le Pen’s strong showing will have an impact on the run-off, but it may also have two indirect effects on the political landscape after May 6th.

First, by setting the tone of the run-off, the National Front may well have subtly shifted the way the next president, whoever he might be, will rule.

Sarkozy won the election in 2007 largely by siphoning votes away from the National Front with a tough line on immigration and crime (the front’s vote collapsed from 16.5 to 10 per cent that year).

If he wins re-election in two weeks having fought the election on Marine Le Pen’s ground, and knowing that she is snapping at his heels, that is bound to have an effect on his presidency.

If Hollande wins, he will largely have the centrists to thank, given that Mélenchon’s vote is already solidly behind him. That makes it more likely that he would choose a member of his party’s social democratic wing as prime minister and feel freer to be guided by his own pragmatic instincts in the Élysée Palace.

Don’t be surprised if he spends a little more time over the coming days talking about balancing the budget than about a 75 per cent tax rate for the super-rich.

The second indirect effect of Le Pen’s high score is the long-term battle it will intensify for dominance on the right.

Sarkozy could have been forgiven for thinking he had crushed the National Front in 2007, but Sunday’s result shows that with a new, less polarising leader, some new rhetoric and a big protest vote to tap into, the populist far-right is resurgent.

Marine Le Pen, just like her father, sees overtaking the neo-Gaullist centre-right bloc that Sarkozy leads as her overriding aim.

She remains staunchly opposed to any co-operation with Sarkozy’s UMP party and would see her interests best served by a defeat for the incumbent on May 6th.

“Sarkozy is beaten – he’s finished,” Jean-Marie Le Pen said as the results came through on Sunday. The National Front has its eyes fixed firmly on national assembly elections in June. A UMP in disarray, preoccupied by the search for a new figurehead, would improve the front’s chances of taking the parliamentary foothold that has eluded it until now.

The paradox is this: Marine Le Pen has kept Sarkozy in the race, but by doing so she has signalled to his party that she could be its biggest long-term threat.