Will the far right be the kingmaker in France's presidential election?

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen captured 18 percent of the vote yesterday. How her supporters vote in the runoff could be the deciding factor between President Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.

Michel Spingler/AP
French far right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, center, arrives for a meeting at the party's headquarters in Nanterre, northwest of Paris, Monday, April 23.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told roaring crowds last night that it is “crunch time” now that the presidential election has been narrowed down to a May 6 runoff between him and Socialist challenger François Hollande, to whom he lost by one point in the first round of elections yesterday.

A high 81 percent turnout rate in national elections combined, unusually, with low voter enthusiasm captured something of the political disillusionment. But also the high stakes for the future at a time when five governments in Europe have collapsed over fallout from the ongoing debt crisis. 

Mr. Hollande captured 27 percent of the vote, with Mr. Sarkozy just behind at 26 percent. The election has become a referendum on how the No. 2 economy in Europe – which the International Monetary Fund hinted has the potential to drag down the world economy – will deal with the eurozone crisis going forward. Hollande campaigned for stronger growth policies while Sarkozy has hitched his wagon to the austerity prescription favored by Berlin for the past year.

Yesterday was the first time in modern France a challenger defeated an incumbent in round one. Yet the thunder created by the intelligent, mild-mannered Hollande was largely stolen by the far right candidate Marine Le Pen, who took 18 percent of the vote in a country where anger and disillusion are rife.  

The strong showing on the far right and the weaker-than-expected showing of far-left candidate Jean Luc Melenchon suggests that Hollande may not be as much a shoe-in in May as the buzz in Paris has had it in recent days. Ms. Le Pen's supporters are far more likely – 60 perfect more – to shift their votes to Sarkozy than to Hollande in the second vote, although polls today show Hollande capturing 53 to 56 percent of the vote while Sarkozy gets 44 to 47 percent. 

Three key questions

There are three key questions being asked in Paris today about the meaning of yesterday's results: 

  • Has the political center of France shifted further to the right in recent years than the cognoscenti thought?
  • Will supporters of Le Pen – who focused her campaign on socially divisive and emotional issues related to nationalism, foreigners, and Islam – now help reelect Sarkozy?
  • And will Sarkozy spend the next two weeks fishing in the previously forbidden waters of the far right?
  • The answer to the last question seems to be “yes.” “There is this crisis vote which has doubled from one election to the next, and it is to this crisis vote that we must provide an answer," Sarkozy said today of Le Pen’s National Front party. “National Front voters must be respected. They made a choice, they expressed a choice. It’s a vote of suffering, a vote of crisis, why insult them?”

    For years, the National Front has been considered so distant from the French mainstream that support for it was thought to be an anathema. In the French vernacular it is called the “shameful vote.” Most political parties would not speak with the National Front. This opprobrium may account for the discrepancy between Le Pen's showing in polls – 14 percent – and the percent of the vote she received. The French often don’t tell pollsters they favor the far right.

    Yet with the telegenic presence of leader Marine Le Pen, the image of the far-right has softened since its days under her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in the 1970s. The party has become more gay and lesbian friendly and lost its sharp anti-Semitic sensibility, although it has been more directly critical of Islam and minorities. 

    Today even Hollande’s camp said they hoped not to alienate Le Pen’s admittedly varied constituency.

    These voters are “the rural and suburban France, the France of villages and the France of RER trains, the France that suffers the hardest from globalization,” said Olivier Faure, a leader of the Socialists at the National Assembly and aide to Hollande on public opinion, speaking in Le Monde today.

    Yet whether Le Pen can play kingmaker is unclear. She has a rally planned for May 1, but it will surprise experts if she endorses either candidate. Le Pen herself is said to dislike Sarkozy. And there is another twist: Le Pen may wish to see the traditional right party of Sarkozy, the Union for a Popular Movement, fracture in order to create a new alliance with a wing of Sarkozy’s party.

    There is also the question of the far right voters. It is unclear at this point whether they are more afraid of the leftist Hollande winning on May 6 than they are loyal to Le Pen. 

    “Le Pen definitely wants the traditional Republican right to implode so she can collect the pieces a few years from now,” says Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “She wants an interesting war within [Sarkozy’s] UMP party.” 

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