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The French Presidential Elections: who really won the first round?

    Professor Jeremy Jennings, expert on French political philosophy, notes that Marine Le Pen and her anti-EU policies are the real winners of the first round of the French vote. 

    Make no mistake. There was only one winner of the first round of France’s presidential election on April 22 and it was Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right Front National. Sure enough, the socialist candidate François Hollande received the most votes, closely followed by Nicolas Sarkozy, but by securing nearly 18% of the votes Madame Le Pen dramatically transformedFrance’s political landscape and again proved that the politicians, journalists and pollsters alike consistently underestimate the appeal of her party’s programme.

    Looking at where Marine Le Pen’s votes came from makes for very interesting reading. In total, she received 6,421,773 votes (a million more than the highest score achieved by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen). While she did better in certain parts ofFrancethan others – scoring well, for example, along the Mediterranean coast andFrance’s eastern frontier – in 11 out of the 20 regions of metropolitanFranceshe secured over 20% of the vote. There is no part ofFrancewhere the FN scored less than 10%.

    Quite remarkably Madame Le Pen received a higher percentage of the working class vote – 30% - than any other candidate (including those of the Left). Nor were young electors disinclined to vote for her. 21% of those aged between 18-34 gave her their support. Moreover, the new votes attracted by Madame Le Pen came from different points on the political spectrum. Only among the liberal professions did she fail to make significant inroads.

    The intriguing question, of course, is how can this success be explained? Many answers can be put forward. The unpopularity of Sarkozy and a broader disillusionment with politics. The effects of the financial crisis and of rising unemployment. The personality of Madame Le Pen herself and her appeal to female voters.  No doubt all have played their part, but, whatever the explanation, the evidence shows that the policies proposed by Madame Le Pen speak to the concerns of a growing proportion of the French electorate.

    And these policies are very simple.Franceneeds to restore her national sovereignty by renegotiating her EU treaty obligations and by withdrawing from NATO. French workers and industries should be protected from foreign competition and the effects of economic globalisation. Immigration levels have been unsustainably high. The first job of government is crack down on crime and lawlessness. In short, Madame Le Pen’s message is one of nationalism and of populism. For many millions of French people who have been ignored and forgotten by the political elites of Paris and Brussels, and for those who wish to resist the forces that are destroying France, it is Madame Le Pen who speaks for them. No doubt many who have real concerns about the National Front’s more unpalatable policies have held their nose and voted for Madame Le Pen, as the only candidate to offer something different from the EU-phile field.  

    So, if Madame Le Pen was the real winner of the first ballot, what happens next? First, it is estimated that only about 60% of those who voted for Madame Le Pen will turn out for Nicolas Sarkozy in the second ballot on May 6. Many will stay at home. Some will vote for François Hollande. This might change if Madame Le Pen were publicly to endorse a vote for Sarkozy. But this seems highly improbable.

    It is more likely that Madame Le Pen will pursue what the French call la politique du pire. By withholding her support, she will ensure the defeat of Sarkozy and the victory of the Left. According to this logic, Sarkozy’s own party, the UMP, will then disintegrate and the Front National will become the dominant party of the Right. Already the omens are visible for the parliamentary elections later this summer.

    Much might change in the course of the next week and Nicolas Sarkozy will certainly turn up the populist rhetoric in a last ditch attempt to avoid defeat. But it will take a lot to wipe the broad grin off the face of Marine Le Pen. 

     

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest works are 'Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France' published by Oxford University Press in 2011 and his edition of Destutt de Tracy's 'A Treatise on Political Economy' published this year by Liberty Fund. 

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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    Comments

    Stephen MacLean - About 2727 days ago

    Thank you for this fascinating commentary on the French presidential elections.

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