According to a recent IFOP poll, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen would win the first round of a snap election with 26% of the vote, beating out a candidate from the ruling Socialist Party (PS), i.e., President François Hollande or his charismatic prime minister, Manuel Valls (both garnered 17%) and the possible candidate for the main opposition UMP party, former president Nicolas Sarkozy (25%).
A preview of 2017?
The results reflect the predominant narrative of the European elections held in May: amid the lingering effects of the financial crisis and a widespread push for austerity, the far right is flourishing. Le Pen’s Front National (FN) has certainly seen a surge of forward-leaning momentum over the past two years, making headway that Marine’s father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, could only dream of. Though, it’s hard to decide who the lion’s share of the credit should go to: Marine Le Pen herself, who revitalized the party after taking over as leader in 2010 by moving it towards the political mainstream, and away from its historic niche on the fringes; or Hollande, whose disastrous performance since taking office two years ago has galvanized the opposition – the FN more successfully than the UMP, which is struggling with its own internal squabbles and share of scandal — and alienated over half of the French populace. (Though Hollande’s approval ratings saw a meager boost in July, they nonetheless hover around a dismal 20%.)
Little wonder then that France’s traditional leading parties are taking Le Pen seriously. The PS in particular has edged closer to the right on heated issues like immigration in a move to regain lost ground. (Remember that in April’s local election the Socialists took a nasty beating amid unprecedented gains by the FN.) The results of the IFOP poll, conducted in late July, prompted many of France’s top dailies to sound the alarm; sample headlines included “worse than April 21!” (the date when Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the second round of the 2002 presidential race). So does the younger Le Pen have a serious shot at the Elysée? Let’s break it down:
President Hollande has three years to rebound. Granted, his track record has proven uninspiring thus far, what with his colossal economic policy failures and indignities ranging from his tryst with actress Julie Gayet to the ignominious demise of his Malian gift camel. Here, a decisive foreign policy stance would help — the French leader saw one of his few spikes in popularity following the launch of Operation Serval in Mali. With Libya and Iraq both in crisis, the field is ripe there, albeit fraught. An economic turnaround would be even better. Though easier said than done… As for the UMP, the moderate right party has all the tools to orchestrate a comeback from its current chaotic state. Starting with a serious presidential contender. Yes, Sarkozy is mired in controversy, yes, he’s said he will not run in 2017, but he remains one of the most viable and popular candidates in the current political landscape. When compared to the flaccid Hollande, once wary French voters may be willing to give him a second chance.
At least if we’re to believe yet another poll, this time conducted by Harris Interactive in late July. Sarkozy’s popularity is increasing, up two points to 32% since last month. Le Pen’s approval ratings, too, are on the rise — up eight points to 29%. But she’s still lagging behind major personalities like the UMP mayor of Bordeaux Aain Juppé and centrist pol François Bayrou. Prime Minister Valls has seen his star slip in recent months, but nonetheless is still one of France’s most popular politicians with 39% approval ratings – and a strong PS candidate in 2017.
So there are a lot of ifs. While Valls, Sarkozy and company have seen their support levels oscillate, Marine Le Pen looks to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory. If she falters, it will likely be due to cracks within the FN as hardliners challenge her de-demonization strategy. After all, even her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has struggled to toe the new party line. But with the French Left and moderate Right alike seemingly resigned to Le Pen’s ascendancy – obligatory indignation notwithstanding – it looks like Marine Le Pen’s struggle to earn political legitimacy may just succeed. The perennially confident FN leader already has a new slogan being printed on her marketing materials: “Front National — the first party in France.” Let’s hope not.