Marine Le Pen victorious: but is she as popular as she thinks?

May 26, 2014
Nigel Horne

Some crumbs of comfort for those who can't believe the French really admire the National Front

Forget for a moment Nigel Farage - 'le bad boy' of British politics, according to Le Monde – and consider the political earthquake across the Channel.

The ultra-right Front National, whose anti-immigration rhetoric down the years is considered so "toxic" that Ukip won't have any dealings with them, beat all the other French parties in yesterday's European election.

It is the first time in its 42-year history that the FN has topped a nationwide poll in France. With 25 per cent of the national vote, it knocked the centre-right UMP (21 per cent) into second place and the ruling Socialists (14 per cent) into third - another "slap in the face" for President Francois Hollande, as Le Figaro put it, following the dismal performance in the town hall elections in March.

Hollande was said to be calling a crisis meeting of ministers at the Elysee Palace for 8am today – would he get home in time? - to debate how to respond, while FN leader Marine Le Pen is calling on him to stand down and dissolve parliament because, in her view, his government no longer represents the wishes of the French people. 

"Our people demand one type of politics: politics of the French, for the French, with the French. They no longer want to be directed from outside," she told a victory rally in Nanterre last night.

"We must build another Europe, a free Europe of sovereign nations and one in which cooperation is freely decided. Tonight is a massive rejection of the European Union."

What makes Le Pen's success very different from that of Farage is the FN's popularity among young people. Even a history of anti-Semitic comments by Marine's father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen - topped off by his remark last week about an Ebola epidemic being the best solution to France's immigrant problem - has failed to turn them off, it seems.

Among French voters aged 35 and below, the FN received 30 per cent of all votes cast yesterday – five points higher than the average tally across all age groups, according to research by Ipsos-Steria. Among 60-plus voters, the FN score dropped to 21 per cent. (Ukip, on the other hand, draws its support disproportionately from older people, according to YouGov.)

With unemployment at record levels, and Hollande's government making little or no progress in its attempts to revive the French economy, the young have put their collective foot down.

But in doing so, just how much power have they handed a party that would not only drop the euro and bring back the franc, but would send most immigrants packing if it ever found power in Paris rather than Brussels?

As a Francophile who would prefer to imagine France unsullied by the Le Pens, I have been searching around overnight for some crumbs of comfort. Here's what I've come up with:

First, Marine Le Pen's claim that "the French have spoken" and the FN is now France's premier party is not totally accurate. The turnout yesterday was 41 per cent: the turnout at the presidential election in 2012, when Nicolas Sarkozy was ousted in favour of Francois Hollande, was 80 per cent. 

Second, yes, the FN will hold a third of France's 74 seats in the European parliament. But EU politics is all about voting blocs and while eurosceptic parties like the FN and Ukip have made extraordinary gains, they probably don't have enough in common to create a serious bloc.

Simon Usherwood, an expert on European politics at Surrey University, told CNN the eurosceptics would now enjoy more time for speaking in debates, and would get to chair certain committees, giving them more of a platform for their views. However, "they don't have enough votes to stop legislation going through". The majority of seats in the European parliament will still be held by established centre-left and centre-right parties.

Third, Marine Le Pen is no more a popular political figure than the miserable Hollande himself. Look at the results of a poll reported by Nice Matin just two weeks ago: 68 per cent of French people had "une mauvaise opinion" of Marine Le Pen; 78 per cent said they would have no confidence in her should she somehow become president. 

The vast majority of those polled found her "aggressive" (71 per cent), "demagogic" (67 per cent) and "racist" (60 per cent) and as for the FN's headline policy of ditching the euro, 81 per cent said it was not credible.

Finally, judged against other leading political figures in France, she was less popular than all of them, Hollande included. Only her appalling father, Jean-Marie, was disliked by the French more than Marine.

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This is not a fair review on the FN party. One must live in France and see the problems the French are dealing with on a daily basis to see why such policies have been put in place by this party. In typical French fashion, they are trying to make the FN party look worse than it actually is. In the south, where immigration does have a negative impact, the FN is popular and supporters for the party are increasing.