The first round of voting in 2012’s French presidential election is over. Two outcomes proved both important and unprecedented. One, for the first time, an incumbent French President lost in the first round of votes. Sarkozy won 27.8% of the vote to Hollande’s 28.6%. Two, the fascist candidate – Marine Le Pen – secured a record 17.9% of all ballots cast. These two factors will combine to influence the second round of voting in significant ways. But what they say about the existing state of French politics, regardless of who wins the election, is more important still.
In the second round of presidential elections, Sarkozy will be confronted with an obvious tactic: swinging further to the right. This, he may decide, will secure the support of disappointed Le Pen voters. Many who voted for Le Pen will vote for Sarkozy regardless of his approach, especially given his illegal deportations of Roma people from France, general anti-immigration stance and attack on diversity in recent years. But Sarkozy must be sorely tempted to woo the far-right further, making ever bigger policy promises that appeal to their taste.
The socialist candidate Hollande, with his left-leaning promises on tax and education, will continue to offer the main alternative to Sarkozy and his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. The election will therefore be a classic race to see, in the last period of campaigning, who can appeal to the most swing- and undecided-voters in order to win.
But in some ways, it doesn’t matter who wins this election. This is because the fundamental damage to French society has already been done. I say this, as the very fact that around 18% of voters would see fit to support Le Pen reflects just how deeply the anti-immigration, far-right agenda has penetrated mainstream French politics. No new president in France, neither a socialist nor a politician of the centre-right, can change this disturbing fact.
And worse, I believe it highly likely that – whoever wins the election – the far-right trend in France will continue.
Let me explain. A victory for Sarkozy would protect and promote the anti-immigration, anti-diversity agenda in France as well as promote its ongoing entrance to the French mainstream. A second term for Sarkozy may even see the right-wing President feeling indebted to – or emboldened by – populist far-right narratives. In that eventuality, the far-right’s agenda in France can only flourish, led by the Trojan Horse of a president willing to confront diversity and immigration head on. This would probably occur in the context of ever more severe austerity in France, a perfect environment for far-right sentiment to flourish.
Of course, Sarkozy may soften his line on such issues, no longer facing the need to find extra votes from extreme right-wingers in France. But, at the very least, the fact that to win he needs such people over in the second round of presidential voting will change his perceived constituency, and maybe even perceptions of his mandate too.
With Hollande, and the potential turbulence of a re-writing agreements with Germany about tackling the Eurozone’s problems, we may see the French economy get worse before it gets better.
Neither man – Sarkozy or Hollande – has control over the real factors in deciding how far the far-right boom in France will develop, and that is the recovery or otherwise of the Eurozone’s economy. Already, we are seeing storm clouds gathering in Spain – problems I believe Spain can come through but problems nonetheless. Yields on Spanish 10 year bonds are above 6%, a trigger point for other troubled Eurozone countries in the past. If any such similar problems hit France, the real lack of choice will become clear. With Sarkozy, the far-right will continue to boom under his austerity and anti-diversity policies. With Hollande, the far-right will have far more to complain about politically plus the potential of France encountering Spanish and Italian style debt problems as a result of markets spooked by a socialist victory.
To put the French result in perceptive, Le Pen has received a level of electoral support higher than many third parties in Europe’s established mainstreams. Le Pen and her party are fascists. France really must confront the appalling facts of this matter, and not just at election time when the unacceptable politics of Fascism have been exposed as mainstream, thriving and more popular than ever in the Eurozone’s second largest economy.
Claude Moraes is a Labour MEP for London.