Can Europe Make It?

France's European spleen

As is now common in France, the biggest shock in the Euro elections will come from the far-right Front National, emboldened by a change in perception towards the party from many French voters. Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Aurelien Mondon
21 January 2014

Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marine Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch. Front National are expeted to do very well in the Euro elections in May. Wikimedia/Marie-Lan Nguyen. Some rights reserved.

What happened in 2009

At the height of the economic crisis, the 2009 European elections saw the moderate right’s UMP return as the strongest force in France, with 29 members of parliament out of 78 (27.9%) (up from 17). These elections also highlighted the weakness of the moderate left; in times of economic turmoil the Parti Socialiste (PS) was unable to convince and capitalise on the polemical start of the Sarkozy presidency, seeing its contingent shrink from 31 to 14 (16.5%).

This failure to gather the protest vote was emphasised by the strong performance of its allies Europe Ecologie, who gathered 16.2% of the vote and gained 6 seats, and the success, albeit modest, of the Front de Gauche (FdG) alliance, who, with 6.3% of the vote, became the strongest voice on the extreme left. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Front National (FN) suffered a blow, with Jean-Marie Le Pen barely managing to exceed 10%.

For many commentators, these poor results reinforced the growing feeling that Sarkozy might have succeeded in making the extreme right party irrelevant. With only three seats (Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen and Bruno Gollnisch), the Front National registered its worst ever performance in traditionally favourable elections. Record abstention (59.37%) underscored their failure and Le Pen’s inability to capitalise on the disillusionment and anxiety of the French population amidst the crisis.

What is happening now

Five years on, the picture has changed dramatically. There is little doubt that most parties will face very different outcomes in the forthcoming European elections, and the suggestions made by polls have for the most part been consistent with the lessons learnt from French politics in the past five years.

The only surprise comes from the relatively good prospects for the PS. With the popularity of François Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault at their nadir, and with a government unable to shake France out of the crisis, let alone offer a positive and coherent vision of the future, the ‘positive’ polls throughout 2013 were a breath of fresh air for the French moderate left. However, with a few months remaining before the election, and the bleak, albeit improving, economic prospects in France for the first part of the year, a further shift of the electorate towards stronger left-wing alternatives or abstention remains a clear possibility.

In this context, the UMP seemed in a prime position to benefit from the poor performance of the current government. However, despite its comfortable position in opposition, ongoing internal feuds between François Fillon and Jean-François Copé, and the lack of a coherent leadership have plagued the party since the (temporary?) retirement of Nicolas Sarkozy from politics.

The failure of a convincing leadership renewal, added to Sarkozy’s heavy legacy, has been a clear disadvantage for the UMP in these second order elections. Sarkozy’s constant flirtation with the FN’s electorate has left deep scars within the party. Internally, it has placed a wedge between those who still believe the rightward shift was the solution to the so-called rise of the FN in the early 2000s, and those clinging to the Gaullist tradition of refusing any kind of association with the extreme right.

Further, having proven unable to deliver fully on its populist and xenophobic rhetoric during Sarkozy’s mandate, the UMP will struggle to appeal to those who turned away from Le Pen in 2007, in the hope Sarkozy would fulfil their expectations once in power. That same part of the electorate which deserted the copy to go back to its more extreme original in 2007 should remain with the FN in 2014. Added to Sarkozy’s many Eurosceptic comments, which have no doubt alienated some of the party’s traditional voters, it is therefore not surprising to see the UMP stuck in the low 20s in most polls.

What could happen in May 2014

One of the main winners of the 2014 elections could be the new centre-right Alternative. This alliance of François Bayrou’s Modem and Jean-Louis Borloo’s Union des Démocrates Indépendants could offer those unwilling to vote for the extremes, and yet wishing to express their discontent, an appealing alternative, and bring the centre back to life after its poor performance in the last major elections. Were they to perform well in the local elections in March, the Alternative could return as a serious contender in the future. In the final polls of 2013, IFOP found that 11% of respondents supported the Alternative. However, previous polls where the two parties were offered as independent lists, hinted that their result could be closer to 15%.

In an opposite trajectory, Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) continue their fall from grace unaided by their current governmental alliance. Beset by internal divisions over strategy and leadership, the Green alliance will not repeat their historic performance of 2009. After their disappointing result at the presidential elections (2.31%), and despite winning a record number of members in the French parliament thanks to their alliance with the PS, EELV seems set for another poor performance, with most polls placing them below 10% (as low as 6% for the latest IFOP).

Unsurprisingly, it is the extremes which are most likely to benefit from the current climate in France, particularly in the context of second order elections and high abstention. With a poor economic forecast and rising unemployment throughout most of 2013, the Front de Gauche and the Front National are ideally positioned to reap the rewards of growing political discontent.

Five years after its first electoral joust, the FdG alliance of various left and extreme left-wing parties including the once powerful Parti Communiste (PCF) has become the strongest voice on the left. This became clear in 2012, when Jean-Luc Mélenchon received a promising 11.11% of the vote in the presidential election. While this result confirmed the alliance’s potential and the space still present in France for a strong extreme left, many were left disappointed by a performance they had hoped would be better. This bitter feeling was reinforced by the FdG finishing fourth, far behind its nemesis, the Front National.

After the presidential election, Mélenchon’s clear animosity for Marine Le Pen and her party led him to compete against the FN leader in the north of France for the legislative elections, hoping for a face-off in the second round. Despite receiving a promising 21% of the vote, Mélenchon’s performance paled in comparison to Le Pen’s 42%. Therefore, while the revolution will not occur during these elections, the FdG should perform stronger than it did in 2009, with recent polls crediting it with up to 10% of vote intentions. However, tensions between the PCF and Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche over potential alliances with the PS could impact negatively on their cohesion and image.

Finally, as is now common in France, the biggest shock will most probably come from the FN. Yet this could hardly be considered a surprise, with regard to the party’s progression in the 2010s. In May 2013, 21% of respondents of an IFOP poll said they were considering voting for Le Pen’s party. In October, that had risen to 24%, taking a strong lead over both the PS and UMP. With polls suggesting that over 40% of the population had a bad opinion of the EU in 2013 (compared to 25 in 2004 and 30 in 2009), the deeply anti-European agenda of the FN is clearly appealing.

More interestingly, while polls have often proven inaccurate with regards to the FN’s performance, a change in the perception of the party is striking in terms of the increasing number of poll respondents willing to admit they would consider the infamous party as an option. Until recently, the stigma attached to the Le Pens’ party often led to survey respondents giving false information, in turn forcing polling companies to adjust their results. Under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, this is proving no longer to be necessary. Yet it would be wrong to assume that the transition from father to daughter has been solely responsible for the FN’s improved prospects, or that the reasons behind their new-found popularity lie necessarily in their own actions.

While the FN has certainly benefited from its strategic and ideological evolution since the 1980s, under the influence of the think-tank Nouvelle Droite and with an increased use of neo-racism and populism, its current popularity finds its roots beyond the remits of the Le Pens’ power. This new-found success after years of stagnation was the consequence of the legitimacy gained through the populist agenda of the Sarkozist right. The UMP’s unashamed pursuit of the FN electorate resulted in extreme right rhetoric leaking into mainstream discourse and being increasingly accepted as normal, or at least acceptable.

While changes have been limited and much evidence points to the party’s extremism, the FN’s acceptance as a serious and legitimate contender has placed Marine Le Pen in a position her father could only have dreamed of. If the polls are correct and the FN becomes the strongest party in the European elections, this radicalising of the mainstream could take on a new dimension, something reinforced by other potentially strong performances from many extreme right-wing parties across Europe.

Of course, there are still a few months before the elections, and these predictions could be transformed by the scandals French politics seems prone to. The results of local elections in March could also impact on voters’ intentions. Yet with the failure of the major parties to either provide a convincing future narrative for France, or assuage their electorate’s fears and anxieties, these elections should confirm abstention as the largest ‘party’ in France, highlighting further the crisis plaguing the European democratic system. 

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