French unity against far-right crumbles as National Front rises

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 07, 2015 12:17 PM

By Ingrid Melander

PARIS (Reuters) - When far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, shocked voters and mainstream parties united to keep him out of power.

Fast-forward 13 years, and everything has changed.

His daughter Marine, now leading the anti-Europe, anti-immigration party, and targeting the French presidency in 2017, topped the polls in the first round of regional elections on Sunday in a historic win.

This time, panicked Socialists and conservatives do not agree on how to react.

Even if they did, opinion polls show many of their voters do not want such alliances anymore.

"The old system died tonight," Marine's niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen proclaimed on Sunday after she won 40.5 percent of the vote in southeast France.

She may well be right.

In 2002, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to say they didn't want the far-right in power and Le Pen senior lost by a huge margin in the run-off after left-wing supporters voted for center-right Jacques Chirac.

Ahead of this year's regional elections run-offs on Dec. 13, there have been no signs of any such rallies being planned against the far-right party, which has been boosted by fears over the Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people in Paris last month, as well as by record unemployment and immigration

"There is no comparison with 2002," said Viavoice pollsters' chief Francois Miquet-Marty.

"The National Front (FN) does not scare people as much, Socialist voters are more reluctant to vote for Nicolas Sarkozy's (conservative) party, and people are more willing to accept the idea of FN regions, it is not as repulsive to them as seeing Jean-Marie Le Pen become president," Miquet-Marty said.

Faced with the prospect of the FN winning one or several regions on Dec. 13 and using them as a platform for the 2017 presidential elections, Socialist President Francois Hollande and his predecessor Sarkozy took diametrically opposite decisions. Both are proving divisive within their own camp.

Sticking to a decades-old tradition of mainstream French parties allying to keep the far-right out of power at all cost - dubbed the "Front Républicain" or "Democratic barricade" - the Socialists are pulling out of at least two regions and have called on their voters to back Sarkozy's Republicans there.

But Sarkozy and most of his party's top officials have rejected any such move, saying it is undemocratic and could well be counter-productive. Sarkozy first broke with that tradition four years ago and his party insists he won't budge.


"We do not own the voices of our voters," Sarkozy's former foreign minister Alain Juppe said after the Republicans issued a statement ruling out alliances with the Socialists which they said "would give the French the feeling that we are confiscating the election by striking tactical deals behind their backs".

The "Front Républicain" term was first coined for a center-left coalition in 1956, when France was at war in Algeria. It aimed to counter the rise of the populist Poujadiste movement to which Le Pen senior belonged at the time, and was regarded as a bulwark against any threats to French democratic values.

In 2015, with Marine Le Pen having strived to "de-demonize" the FN to make it more palatable to mainstream voters, many think such alliances are no longer justified.

Besides, Juppe said, even if the Republicans decided to pull out of some areas in favor of the Socialists, the FN might still win. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former conservative prime minister, publicly disagreed, saying that trying to beat the far-right should trump any other considerations.

In another sign of how mainstream parties are at odds internally over how to stop the rise of the far-right, the Socialist candidate in the northeast is refusing to drop out of the race for the run-off.

And there is no guarantee that either party will benefit from their strategies.

"There is a pressure within the Left that is more about taking the moral high-ground than about politics. Does that guarantee that the FN will be beaten in the second round? The answer is no," Harris Interactive pollster Jean-Daniel Levy said.

And Sarkozy - whose hopes for a landslide win because of the weakness of the Socialists were dashed by the rise of the far-right - could see his presidential ambitions for 2017 take a hit if the FN scores big wins on Sunday.

How to deal with rival parties is all the more complicated for him because opinion polls now show that over half of his party's voters do not rule out alliances with the FN itself, political analyst Sylvain Crepon said. Such pacts with the far-right would represent a significant reshaping of the traditional political landscape in France.

Another big difference with 2002 is that, at the time, Jean-Marie Le Pen's qualification for the second round was completely unexpected and he did not follow it up with successes in other elections.

He sought to attract protest votes, not victories - but the opposite is the case for his daughter, which further explains why how dealing with her rising popularity is such a major headache for the mainstream parties.

"What happened yesterday is no accident," Levy said of the regional election first round. "It is a deeply entrenched trend."

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Gerard Bon and Sophie Louet; Editing by Pravin Char)