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The French Presidential Election: Politics, Populism, and Le Pen

Post-Event Analysis

By Marley Morris and Victoria Zeeb
Editing by Daniel A. Estrada and Nick W. Smith

Professor Jocelyn Evans

Emma Reynolds, MP

Professor John Gaffney

Monday’s event with the UCL European Institute on the upcoming French presidential election provided a fascinating opportunity for expert debate on French politics, populism and Le Pen. The panel consisted of experts on France and extremism, both academics –  Professor John Gaffney, Professor Philippe Marlière and Professor Jocelyn Evans – and other experts – Tony Barber, Europe editor of the Financial Times, Jamie Bartlett, Head of the Violence and Extremism programme at Demos, and Daniel Trilling from the New Statesman.

The general consensus from the expert panel was that Marie Le Pen would receive around 15 per cent of the vote.

The discussion kicked off with the chair – our director Dr Catherine Fieschi – drawing out from each panellist their prediction  on how successful Marine Le Pen would be next Sunday. The general consensus was around 15 per cent. Even Jocelyn Evans admitted that his prediction of 17 per cent – calculated using a retrospective model that determined the Front National vote using immigration and unemployment levels – was probably a couple of percentage points too high.

The speakers agreed that while Le Pen would likely do better than her father in 2007, the ‘Vague Bleu Marine’ had failed to materialise. Philippe Marlière suggested that her strategy of ‘normalising’ the Front National had failed as her policies were the same Extreme Right policies as her father’s. Daniel Trilling disagreed, saying that the FN had successfully made inroads into civil society by targeting community interests at a local level. Marine Le Pen’s policies had come under greater scrutiny than her father’s, suggested Dr Rainbow Murray in the audience, because women politicians tend to receive greater policy inspection in general. On top of this, her campaign had not focused on issues popular with core FN voters as much as Jean-Marie Le Pen, said Jocelyn Evans.

The speakers agreed that while Le Pen would likely do better than her father in 2007, the ‘Vague Bleu Marine’ had failed to materialise.

So has Sarkozy’s robust right-wing stance prevented a Front National surge? asked Catherine Fieschi. Tony Barber pointed out that due to external circumstances, such as the recent shootings in Toulouse, the entire election had acquired a bit of a ‘right-wing flavour’ which was cutting into Le Pen’s votes. But Jocelyn Evans said that Sarkozy’s strategy of stealing extreme right votes was likely to be less successful this time round than it was in 2007, since his five years in power had created the space for mass disappointment at broken promises.  John Gaffney emphasised that due to the ‘personalised nature’ of French politics, the most important factor in this year’s election was the French public’s hatred for Sarkozy.

Given Marine Le Pen’s stagnation in the polls, the panel debated the role of the economic crisis in extremist politics. Jamie Bartlett argued that extreme right parties campaign on culture not economics – and that in a financial crisis the renewed focus on economic policy actually damages the extreme right, who are seen by voters as lacking economic credibility. Yet Jocelyn Evans pointed out that there is a positive correlation between unemployment levels and level of support for the FN. Daniel Trilling added that in the long-run the crisis may make the extreme right stronger, pointing to the success of the BNP’s campaigns on housing.

The panel then turned to the core demographic of the FN. Who are these voters? Catherine Fieschi opened the discussion by pointing out that along with the older more established demographic that constitutes the FN’s core vote, the young vote has been surprisingly supportive of Le Pen. Philippe Marlière argued that the FN electorate are made up of ‘semi-skilled, educated workers’ and that it is not the blue collar vote that keeps them afloat. Daniel Trilling added that far right voters are not usually those who have the least, but those that have a little and are afraid of losing it – including not just material wealth, but also the loss of their country’s cultural identity.

If the extreme right in France has not been capitalising on the crisis, what about the left? Emma Reynolds MP, shadow minister for Europe, asked the panel whether the rise of Melenchon signalled a shift away from the extreme right to the hard left in France. Tony Barber said he thought support for Melenchon had peaked. Philippe Marlière emphasised that Le Pen and Melenchon voters were different and that while the Front National heaped blame on immigrants for people’s economic problems, Melenchon targeted the actual guilty party – the bankers. Jamie Bartlett replied that Front National voters blamed elites too – for failing to curb immigration levels.

What does this tell us ahead of the first round of the election on Sunday? The results are likely to be disappointing for Le Pen and positive for the left. But nothing can be ruled out. Jocelyn Evans expressed his frustration that French polling companies do not reveal how they adjust their figures. It is therefore unclear how effective their polling methods are – there have certainly been mistakes in the past. As John Gaffney predicted, Sunday will, one way or the other, most probably present us with a French electoral surprise.

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