Marine Le Pen and the French Far-Right: What 20% of the vote means for the future

As the first round of French elections comes to a close with François Hollande leading incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy with a small margin, we are left to wonder about the future of France.

UMP, Sarkozy’s party, has been in power since the 1995 election of President Jacques Chirac. While public support for UMP has fluctuated lately, the last few years of Sarkozy’s presidency may signal a death knell for the once popular party. I can vividly remember the constant strikes about the direction of the economy and high unemployment from my time spent living abroad in Brittany during 2009-2010. As the Eurozone still suffers from the ramifications of the debt crisis, disillusionment with the center-right UMP and Sarkozy has mounted. Ideas about growth and austerity models have been proposed by both parties as ways to fix the struggling economy; however, this election will be paramount in determining the course of l'Hexagone.

Enter François Hollande (Socialist Party) and Marine Le Pen (National Front).

Despite the critical nature of the election and the economy, Hollande has failed to offer many fresh ideas, which may have contributed to a lack of energy surrounding his campaign. His main proposals include higher taxes for the rich and an emphasis on stimulating economic growth in the face of France’s debt crisis. Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his four children, seemed to be far more capable of exciting the base despite her ultimate loss in 2007 French presidental election. Hollande might be the default Socialist candidate but does not have Royal’s same starpower - a deficiency that resulted in Martine Aubry, First Secretary of the Socialist Party, labelling him as a couille molle, someone without balls, in 2011.

The lackluster appeal of the two mainstream candidates has opened up a wedge for the dangerous rhetoric of the National Front, France’s far-right party, and Marine Le Pen, the party’s heir apparent.

Le Pen’s pedigree is impeccable. As the third daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, and the ex-wife and current wife of party officials within the National Front, she has been firmly indoctrinated in the language of xenophobia. Her father is well-known for his rather colorful remarks including quips refering to AIDS sufferers as “lepers” and statements downplaying the Nazi occupation of France.

With perhaps not as vitrolic as the campaigns of her father, Marine Le Pen's campaign has largely centered on her anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic rhetoric which strikes chords with the latent strains of xenophobia and racism within French society. Although these undercurrents of prejudice have flared through incidents like the 2010 riots and the controversy over the ban on burqas, the National Front has brought these issues to the national stage.

Disturbingly, in the first round of voting, which concluded today, Le Pen received 19.9% of votes, a number higher than was expected. This figure might be a reflection of Hollande’s lack of star power and Sarkozy’s arrogance or it might indicate the more insidious forces at work with French culture. The idea that a candidate who so openly panders to Islamophobia and prejudice has won such a large margin of the vote should be an alarm bell. While Le Pen denies claims of Islamophobia, one can clearly see the truth, especially in her 2010 remarks to a crowd in Lyon in which she stated: “For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it’s about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory." 

Marine Le Pen, like many of current members of the American GOP, believes in a world that is long-gone. With globalization, homogenous societies can no longer exist. In fact, it would unwise to advocate a return to such a state for intellectual reasons (diversity can open doors to the fresh exchange of ideas) as well as practical ones (immigration is essential in order to maintain the French population which has a rapidly declining birth rate).

While Le Pen may have finished third, this 19.9% finish is a historic moment for the National Front. The party’s last triumph over expectations was in 2002 when Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen won 16.8% of the vote while running against incumbent Jacques Chirac. Despite the fact that it might not be an outright victory, it is a victory in the eyes of the National Front.

Some commentators might reject Le Pen’s third place finish as unimportant, but we can already see the ramifications in the actions of Sarkozy since the announcement of the standings. In these few short hours, he has pivoted to address issues of immigration and national security in order to court Le Pen supporters in the May 6 runoff.

Despite the fact that I believe that Hollande will ultimately win the election, as a student of culture and politics, I am wary of what this small victory for the National Front signals for France and its large immigrant population. Will they be respected or be continually dragged into public discourse and villified as étrangers?