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France

France looks back to a future with Marine Le Pen

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-04-20

When it comes to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the French vividly remember her father’s 2002 presidential bid, when the National Front's then-leader made it to the second round. But could history repeat itself in Sunday’s vote?

With hours to go before the end of campaigning ahead of Sunday’s first round of the presidential vote, French President Nicolas Sarkozy aimed a strike at the blonde, palatably packaged leader of France’s extreme-right National Front party at a rally in the northern French town of Arras Wednesday.

"The vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen served François Mitterrand, the vote for Marine Le Pen will serve François Hollande,” Sarkozy warned before going on to somewhat unnecessarily add, “I do not want it".

Former French President Mitterrand is long dead. The National Front candidate for the 2012 race is Marine Le Pen, the 43-year-old youngest daughter of the 83-year-old party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who handed over the party’s reins to his daughter in 2011.

Sarkozy’s remark at Wednesday’s rally referred to his ruling centre-right UMP party’s longstanding claim that Mitterrand, a former Socialist president, supported Le Pen senior in a bid to split France’s right-wing vote.

In 2012, this nefarious nexus, the argument goes, would ultimately benefit Sarkozy’s main rival, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande.

Dead and ageing men walking

Evoking dead and ageing men just days ahead of an election may not augur well in most countries. But France is a nation haunted by the political ghosts of the past.

As French presidential candidates use the last few hours of campaigning to tout their promises for the future of the country, many political pundits have their eyes set on a presidential election exactly a decade ago.

Thursday’s edition of the left-leaning paper, Libération, featured a full-page colour cover photo of a confident looking National Front candidate in a signature power suit with the headline, “The Threat: Marine Le Pen could create an unpleasant surprise in Sunday’s first round with a vote comparable to that of her father in 2002.”

The year 2002 is a landmark in the history of French politics, the lessons of which have dominated the political discourse for the past ten years.

It was in 2002 that then National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen edged out Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round, getting16.86% of the vote to Jospin’s 16.18%.

It was also the first time in French history that a National Front candidate made it to the second round, shocking the nation with the prospect of an extreme-right president. In the second round of the 2002 race, the electorate rallied around Le Pen’s rival, UMP candidate Jacques Chirac, handing him one of the biggest landslides in the history of French politics, with over 82% of the vote.

The ‘bad memory’ of 2002

For Libération, a staunch Hollande supporter, a strong showing for Le Pen on Sunday would confirm France’s extreme-right party as a formidable force in the future of French politics.

In its editorial, Libération states that Le Pen has been hovering around the 17% mark in the opinion polls, close to the 16.86% her father won in the first round in 2002.

The paper acknowledged that Le Pen is probably unlikely to make it to the second round, but it warned that public attention has shifted from Le Pen to the surprise rise of firebrand leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

A fiery speaker, Melenchon has struck a chord with many voters in recent weeks with his virulent attacks on France's elite and Sarkozy’s austerity measures. The 60-year-old former Socialist minister has seen his support rise from less than 10 percent at the start of the year to between 13 and 17 percent in recent polls.

French political pundits are now riveted by the prospect of a fight between Melenchon and Le Pen for third place in Sunday’s vote.

“Even if she does not secure the third place on Sunday, the daughter of the old National Front head will settle permanently in the French political landscape,” said the Libération editorial, which went on to blame Sarkozy for putting the far-right party on the mainstream agenda by incorporating its anti-immigration rhetoric.

Critics charge that by putting the spotlight on Le Pen and reinvigorating the spectre of April 2002, the staunchly pro-Socialist daily is seeking to rally the faithful behind Hollande at a time when many are tempted by Melenchon's more extreme brand of left-wing politics.

Le Pen herself has blasted the mainstream press for raising the spectre of 2002. Evoking the “bad memory” of 2002, when the left and right stood together against her father, Le Pen has maintained that her “hope and goal” is to make it to the second round.

If Libération's warning is anything to go by, that day may yet come. But with just hours to go before Sunday’s poll, all eyes in French political circles are on her battle for third.

Date created : 2012-04-19

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