Is Le Pen mightier than Le Sword?


According to Bloomberg – that’s the news network, not the ex-NYC mayor who must now be regretting he didn’t put his hat in the presidential ring as an independent – there are four ballots to watch in Europe over the next year, and every one of them is likely to increase the prominence of the right-wing populist forces: the Italian constitutional referendum in December, the Dutch parliamentary elections in March, the German parliamentary elections in September – and the French presidential elections over the two rounds in April and May.

The French election is essentially between the National Front’s Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie) and whoever the Gaullist centre-right will end up nominating against her. The current president, Socialist Francois Hollande, is unpopular with nearly 9 out of 10 Frenchmen and women and has almost singlehandedly killed his party’s short-term political prospects.

Currently, Le Pen is polling 34-66 against the former prime minister Alain Juppe, and 44-56 against the former president Nicolas Sarkozy. No one is expecting her to win the presidency, since the combined vote of the centre-right and all the varieties of the left who despise the National Front more than they do the Gaullists is expected to crush her. She will achieve what her father unexpectedly did in 2002 when he came in second, ahead of the Socialists, in the first round and was then defeated by Jacques Chirac who enjoyed more – and often less – enthusiastic support of the rest of the political spectrum. Judging by the polls, Marine will do better than her father, who in the second round lost in the biggest landslide in French history achieving only 18 per cent of the vote, but not nearly enough to pull the biggest upset imaginable.

Or will she?

We do live in crazy times, which are getting crazier by the minute. Populism is on the rise across the world, particularly the Western world. We’ve had Brexit (just) and, if less likely, we might get Donald Trump (just). Even if we don’t, it will be a close call, in a country that has historically practiced sensible politics.

As I’ve blogged a few months ago, when I first brought up what I call The Great Malaise, the analysis of opinion polling suggests that France, if anything, is even more primed for a populist explosion that the United Kingdom and the United States. In particular:

  • France has one of the largest gaps in the levels of trust in public institutions between the elite and the rest of the population, and that gap has experienced the largest widening in the recent times; and
  • After Japan, France has the lowest level of optimism about the future amongst both the elite and the masses.

All this will probably still not be enough to catapult into the highest office a candidate of what has traditionally been a fringe party, no matter ho hard she has worked to shed that fringe image. But it will definitely make for an even more tumultuous and unpredictable campaign than most observers expect.