French election history: Jean-Marie Le Pen's 'thunderclap' shocker 15 years on

Eric Feferberg, AFP | National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen reacts over exit polls on April 21, 2002, in Saint-Cloud, France.

With polls tight before April 23’s first round and four presidential candidates with a shot at the final, anything goes in France's wildly unpredictable campaign. And yet the benchmark for political surprises remains April 21, 2002.


On that day, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the rabble-rousing founder of the far-right National Front (FN), advanced to the run-off of the 2002 presidential election, laying waste to every prediction, eliminating a sitting prime minister and spurring a nationwide crisis of conscience.

Fifteen years on, the shorthand “le 21 avril” stands as a cautionary tale, the sort of yearless mnemonic more often used for bloodier trauma (think 9/11 in the US, 7/7 in Britain, orle 13 novembre in France).

It is difficult to overstate the shock of that Sunday, April 21, when at 8pm sharp, grave, ashen faced news anchors announced the projected presidential finalists and Le Pen’s image appeared side by side on screen with the incumbent, Jacques Chirac. The conservative president had topped the first round with 19.88 percent of the vote; Le Pen came in second with 16.86 percent. The Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, finished third with 16.18 percent.

Pollsters hadn’t seen the result coming, even as Le Pen edged up from 11 percent at the end of March to 14 percent before the vote.

Imagine that, on April 17, 2002, when asked who would get his vote in the second round should he be eliminated on April 21, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin threw his head back and let out a belly laugh at the mere suggestion. “I have a normal imagination, but tempered by reason, so “

“It’s impossible?” the interviewer asked.

“Let’s not say that, but it seems pretty unlikely to me, huh? So we can skip to the next question,” Jospin answered blithely.

Four days later, the white-mopped leftist Jospin would quit politics for good. The Socialist prime minister -- who had governed France for five years under the conservative president Chirac, through the dawn of the euro currency, the perpetually-controversial-yet-popular 35-hour workweek, and generally the period that scientists would later determine to have been the happiest the French had experienced – called the result a “thunderclap”. Jospin waited no longer than his concession speech on the night of April 21 to announce his withdrawal from political life, to screams from aghast supporters.

Tears abound in footage from that evening; tears of dismay among young Jospin fans, tears of joy for Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s then-33-year-old blond scion, learning the news at his campaign headquarters.

Commentating the result on set for France 3 television, Jospin spokeswoman Martine Aubry, the cabinet minister who was the face of the Socialists’ 35-hour workweek, choked up, struggling to speak. Leftists -- with the notable exception of Workers’ Struggle leader Arlette Laguiller, a Trotskyist -- would call for their supporters to (hold their noses and) cast their second-round votes en masse for the conservative Chirac. That night, young people poured into the streets in spontaneous protest.

The next morning’s newspapers were a study in surprise: “The Le Pen Bomb” (France Soir), “The Shock” (Le Parisien), “The Earthquake” (the conservative daily Le Figaro), “France does not deserve this” (the communist daily L’Humanité) or simply “No” (the left-wing daily Libération).

Chirac, for his part, refused to take part in the traditional finalist candidates’ debate, saying, “I cannot accept the trivialisation of intolerance and hatred.”

Within days of the vote, popular French rocker Damien Saez released “Fils de France,” or “Sons of France”, a zeitgeist-capturing anthem blasting “suicidal amnesia in the land of the Enlightenment”. In the song, a chorus of young people chant “shame on our country, shame on our homeland, shame on us, the youth, shame on tyranny” -- incredulous that the National Front could advance in France, home of “human rights, tolerance, the Enlightenment, the Resistance."

May Day rallies five days before the run-off vote would muster 1.3 million people in cities across the country – considered at the time a record turnout, going back to France’s Liberation from Nazi occupation. Demonstrators wielded anti-FN banners and placards; never again, they exclaimed. Some held up the little yellow hand inscribed with “Touche pas à mon pote”, or don’t touch my buddy, the iconic symbol of tolerance created by French anti-racism group SOS Racisme in the 1980s; many less subtle placards likened Le Pen to Hitler.

In the end, on May 5, Chirac won a second term by a landslide, 82.2 percent to Le Pen’s 17.7.

What really happened in 2002: A perfect storm

A watershed moment in French political history, “le 21 avril” took on a life of its own. Politically, it became a bogeyman that has since been brandished before every major electoral contest to encourage tactical voting known as “le vote utile”, the useful vote that wards off an embarrassing result.

Politicians regularly warn of the risk of a “nouveau 21 avril” (the first-round elimination of the left in favour of the right and the far-right, as in 2002) or a “21 avril à l’envers”, a backward April 21 (the right eliminated in favour of the left and far-right). As recently as this week, with far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon enjoying momentum down the stretch, some have floated the spectre of a “double 21 avril” or a “42 avril” (the mainstream left and right both eliminated in favour of parties on the far-left and far-right, in this case far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and National Front torchbearer Marine Le Pen, respectively).

So, was the result of the first round on April 21, 2002, really a flashpoint for tyranny and intolerance? Not exactly. In fact, Le Pen’s advance to the run-off was something closer to a historical accident, or at least a perfect storm of contributing factors.

For one, the 2002 presidential election featured a record 16 candidates, including a clutch of leftists running on Jospin’s terrain, who naturally split the vote. In French presidential elections going back to 1965, according to a recent Reuters count, the two candidates who have qualified for the run-off have on average scored 25 percent in the first round; but in 2002, with 16 candidates, the bar was much lower. Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified with 16.86 percent of the vote, the lowest scoring candidate ever to advance to a run-off duel.

The abstention – or non-turnout – rate was also historically high, at 28 percent, decreasing the number of votes needed to obtain a respectable score.

On the left, the vote was split to a hazardous degree. Two Trotskyist candidates, Laguiller and 28-year-old postman-by-day Olivier Besancenot earned a combined 10 percent of the vote. Yet more pertinently, Socialist allies Christiane Taubira (2.32 percent) and Jospin’s former Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement (5.33 percent), may well have fatally split the Jospin-friendly vote. Recall that Jospin finished only 0.68 percent behind Le Pen.

By all accounts, meanwhile, the Socialist ran a mediocre campaign. Evidently over-confident about advancing to the second round against Chirac – as a sort of climax to the five-year “cohabitation” duel between the conservative president and the Socialist prime minister -- Jospin shirked the traditional French electoral wisdom that one should consolidate his base before the first round to then widen it before the second. “The platform I am proposing is not a Socialist platform,” he said on a national newscast in February 2002. “It is a synthesis of what is necessary today, which is to say modernity.”

It was a misplaced confidence that, in fact, was widely shared, since polling figures gave voters no reason to be alarmed. One possible factor blamed at the time was the statistical difficulty of adjusting for underreported voter intentions, at a time when voters were known to be disproportionately more reluctant to tell a pollster they planned to vote for the National Front. “Polls played a decisive role [in the 2002 election],” Alain Garrigou, co-founder of France’s Observatory of polls, told the weekly Journal du Dimanche last year. “There seemed to not be any uncertainty about the candidates who would qualify for the second round. But in making that error, they misled the voters and the candidates.”

All of which had already compromised Jospin’s hopes before one even broaches the subjects of Le Pen, intolerance and security after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that had shaken the world order just seven months earlier.

In fact, in 2002, Le Pen scored only 234,000 more votes than he had tallied in the 1995 presidential election. “What one must look at is the percentage Le Pen scored in 2002, 17 percent, and his percentage in 1995, 15 percent,” far-right specialist Jean-Yves Camus tells FRANCE 24. “It is not an explosion. It is a progression; a continuous, solid progression, but going from 15 percent to 16.9 percent isn’t an immense exploit,” says Camus, co-author of “Far-right politics in Europe,” released in English in March.

Legacy: History in a handful of votes

In the end, on April 21, Jospin fell short by only 194,601 votes, a relative handful with myriad historical knock-on effects.

“It’s true. It would have changed history. It could have gone either way and Chevènement and Taubira have an enormous responsibility in it. That’s very clear,” says French political analyst Thomas Guénolé.

It is a game of political fiction to guess at how history and the very tone of French politics would have been altered by a Jospin win that day. But the exercise is instructive.

“If things had gone differently in 2002, in reality, I think the Socialist Party candidate [Jospin] would have been elected president of the republic and we would have had a Socialist five-year term,” Guénolé opines.

And what about Nicolas Sarkozy? Named a cabinet minister to start Chirac’s second term in 2002, Sarkozy made his name as a tough-talking Interior Minister, famously pledging to “get rid of” the “scum” in an immigrant-rich Paris suburb. He would parlay that top-cop image into a successful bid for the presidency in 2007, tactically siphoning votes from the National Front with policy promises that played to their appetites for security, immigration, and “national identity”. “If some people don’t like France, they should leave it,” Sarkozy said in 2006, citing a National Front refrain almost to the letter.

What would Sarkozy’s career have looked like without April 21, 2002? What about his prime minister, François Fillon, who is running as a hardline conservative in 2017 on the back of that experience? What about François Hollande, whom Jospin later hinted he would have chosen as his prime minister in 2002? What about the 2017 far-leftist candidate Mélenchon -- monsieur momentum as the current race approaches its climax -- who was a Socialist cabinet minister under Jospin until 2002? What would have been in the cards for him? Mélenchon, who has said he was despondent after the 2002 defeat, finally broke away from the Socialist Party in 2008 and looks set to bleed his former party of votes in 2017.

Missed signals, and indeed a misread of what really happened on April 21, 2002, may live on in the media, too. Guénolé says he abhors one scourge of French political journalism: a tendency to put the National Front at the heart of the action. “When one warns of a possible catastrophe, it sells. That’s just how it is. And so there is this permanent incentive for media to do analyses and articles that are catastrophist,” says Guénolé. “If my washing machine breaks down and I ask a political journalist, ‘what will come from this?’, he will say, ‘It plays into the hands of the National Front,’ because everything plays into the hands of the National Front”, he quips.

2017: Full circle?

In one clear sense, the 2017 presidential election is as different as can be from 2002: polls have had Marine Le Pen advancing to the second round for months, with voter intentions consistently above 20 percent, only to see her lose heavily in the run-off. With 11 candidates in the 2017 race and projected abstention near the record 2002 rates, tactical “vote utile” voting is on everyone’s lips. Just ask poor Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate who, paradoxically, looks likely to fall victim to it this time.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the run-off in 2002, he would admit later, he was worried about actually winning because the National Front lacked the “machinery of power” needed to govern.

Since taking over her father’s party in 2011, Marine Le Pen has made a show of building up that party machine, winning experience for its personnel in high-scoring mid-term elections, including two seats in the National Assembly, two more in the Senate, 11 town mayors, an army of city councillors and 24 members of the European Parliament. This time, no one can say he didn’t see the race’s headline anti-immigration Europhobe coming.

But now, expectations are different within the National Front, too. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s voters were ecstatic with his 16.86 percent score in 2002. Then, shaking things up was victory enough. For his daughter, that may not be so. With polls in the last week before the first round putting four candidates within striking distance of the two spots available in May 7’s final, Marine Le Pen’s supporters could experience a relatively new feeling for National Front voters: disappointment.

“Marine Le Pen is sort of going for broke here,” says Camus, the far-right specialist. If she can prove the polls right, make the second round and bow out with an honourable defeat around 40 percent in the run-off, “mission accomplished” for her, he says. “But if she isn’t in the second round, then one mustn’t forget there is a National Front convention in the fall and there could be score settling at every level because there is enormous hope invested in this presidential election and the legislative elections that follow,” Camus says, suggesting Le Pen’s leadership may be called into question.

What is clear is that if Le Pen does make the final on April 23, as pundits predict, a watchword that has shaped French politics for 15 years – le 21 avril – will be consigned to the history books.

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