What will France do about the Far Right?

It has only been thirty-six hours since the French elections in which François Hollande — once known as ‘marshmallow man‘ and, as I pointed out in an earlier post, hardly the conventional image of a president — defeated Nicolas Sarkozy and already he has drifted away from the center of conversation.  No, the chatter now is about a presidential candidate who failed even to advance into the second round: Marine Le Pen, inheritor (from her demagogue father, Jean-Marie Le Pen) of the leadership of the far right, who skillfully took her party, the Front National, to the edge of mainstream politics, where Sarkozy felt obliged to flirt with her in the hopes of luring her voters to his side in the second round.  She won 18% of the vote in the first round, which was better than expected, but did not endorse anyone in the second; now, with legislative elections due in June, the betting is that Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, will align with her to prevent a landslide victory by Hollande’s Socialists.

I do not believe this will happen; if it happens, I believe it will fail and the mainstream right will be forced to regroup, with the shame of their cynical alliance added to the indignity of their coming loss.  The reason is this: Marine Le Pen may have gotten 18% of the vote but this exaggerates her true constituency.  The first round of voting in French presidential elections is the “rebellious adolescent” round, when those of a mind to thumb their noses at the establishment have the chance to do so in a largely symbolic vote because the top two contenders (presumably, one each from the mainstream right and left) will advance to the second, “adult” round from which the president is chosen.  Sometimes this can backfire, as happened in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly advanced on a surge of protest votes into the second round against Jacques Chirac (who was also on the right, leaving the left no candidate at all) whereupon he was walloped, losing by a margin of 64% percentage points in the most lopsided defeat in French history.  But there is reason to believe that some French voters still use their first round votes in this rebellious fashion.  Exhibit #1 was the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who serves the ‘outrage your parents’ role for the left that Le Pen does for the right and at various points was polling as high as 17%.  Exhibit #2 is that only 58% of Le Pen voters turned out for Sarkozy in the second round; this might sound like a lot but given that Sarkozy is also on the right you’d expect it to be a lot higher if ideology alone drove votes.

So what will happen?  My guess is this: the UMP will continue to flirt with Marine Le Pen by giving voice to some of her voters’ cherished issues — expect more nastiness about Muslim immigrants, for example — but will stop short of a formal alliance.  After all, what could more effectively doom the respectable right as a mainstream force than the wholesale abandonment of so many principles it once professed to hold dear?  The problem is not that the French have lost their appetite for the policies of the right; it is that they are fed up with Sarkozy himself, so much so that they have voted in a marshmallow.

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