The unexpected results of a new French poll about potential 2012 presidential candidates offers quantitative support to the emerging consensus that under Marine Le Pen, the French far right is a force to be reckoned with.
France’s presidential elections are more than a year away, but a new poll has shocked French political circles by showing a far right candidate coming in first place.
The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive for daily newspaper Le Parisien, has National Front leader Marine Le Pen (who took over from her father in January) leading the race with 23 percent of votes. Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Martine Aubry would each pull in 21 percent, the poll found.
Doubts have been raised about the credibility of a single online poll featuring a presumptive left-wing candidate. But if nothing else, the results offer some quantitative support to the emerging consensus that under Marine Le Pen, the French far right is a political force to be reckoned with.
2002 all over again?
According to Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on France’s far right, the poll’s biggest flaw is the absence of International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn – or DSK, as the French call him -- as the likely Socialist candidate. Strauss-Kahn has yet to confirm his intentions to run for his party’s nomination. But his experience on the world stage and his background as an economist have given him frontrunner buzz, and many believe he would fare better against right-wing rivals than party leader Aubry. “One could assume that in a poll between Sarkozy, DSK, and Marine Le Pen, DSK would come out on top,” Camus told France24.com
The new poll carries echoes of the 2002 French presidential elections, in which Jean-Marie Le Pen -- Marine’s father and then-chief of the National Front -- was placed second in an initial round of voting, knocking out Socialist Lionel Jospin and advancing to face Jacques Chirac in the final vote.The possibility of an extreme-right president dealt a blow to French self-image, and voters rallied behind Chirac to hand him a second term. Analysts expect the outcome would be the same if Marine Le Pen made it to the second round in 2012.
Still, the smiley, polished-looking 42-year-old politician is considered a bigger threat to mainstream French parties than her controversial, irascible father. “Not only does she poll better in potential presidential match-ups,” Camus said, “she also has higher favourability ratings than her father.”
Marine ‘more acceptable’ than Jean-Marie
Indeed, Marine Le Pen is credited with giving her party a more modern and inclusive image. She has refused to engage in, or defend, the kind of provocations for which her father was notorious -- like the time he remarked that gas chambers were a “detail” of World War II history. And she has stripped the party’s anti-immigration platform of overtly racist language, framing it more palatably as a debate about the place of Islam in French society.
According to Camus, that strategy has paid off. “It was frowned upon for right-wing voters, especially upper-middle class ones, to vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen. He went too far,” Camus explained. “Marine is more acceptable.”
Still, more modern packaging does not necessarily mean more moderate policies. “She is more modern simply because she was born in another era,” Camus noted. “But I don’t see the moderation. The National Front has a platform that is clear, unchanging, and very consistent.”
The Sarkozy factor
Another reason for Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the poll is widespread dissatisfaction with President Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are hovering around a dismal 30 percent. “Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on the basis of his economic proposals and his talk of hard work and French meritocracy,” Camus assessed. “Many of those voters have not found the results they were expecting.”
Sarkozy has attempted to stave off inroads made by Marine Le Pen by placing similar emphasis on the Islam issue. Aside from endorsing his party’s law banning the head-to-toe Islamic veil from public places, the president has called for a debate on the role of religion in a secular state and even gave a nod to France’s “Christian heritage” in a recent speech.
Meanwhile, as Sarkozy tries to shore up support before announcing a re-election bid and Socialists prepare for their party primary in October, Marine Le Pen has begun openly campaigning for the presidency. Camus believes that while the poll results could stun some voters into backing Sarkozy, it will also probably “motivate Marine Le Pen voters, who will now have fewer qualms about vocalising their support for her”.
The candidate herself reacted to the news of her hypothetical victory with confidence. She told French journalists that she was in the race “to win”, adding: “The National Front represents hope for our people.”
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