Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent French president who lost the first round of the election to Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, has stated explicitly that he will not seek to form an alliance with Marine Le Pen, the extreme right-wing candidate who scored an impressive third place finish in the poll.
Indeed, Le Pen’s National Front (FN) party received 17.9 percent of the vote in the first round -- the highest tally that the the anti-immigration party has ever received. While Le Pen finished more than 10 percentage points behind the front-runners Sarkozy and Hollande, her portion of the electorate is sizable enough for the two ‘mainstream’ candidates to hunt for.
Thus, Sarkozy has to walk a fine line between trying not to alienate Le Pen’s supporters, while appearing not to agree with some of their more extremist points of view.
Indeed, while Sarkozy has ruled out giving any cabinet positions to FN members should he win, he has expressed sympathy for the fears and concerns of those who voted for Le Pen.
We need to speak to the 18 per cent who voted for Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy said.
But I don't want ministers from the FN. I've never wanted that. The 18 per cent who voted FN don't belong to me, but it's my duty to address them.
Sarkozy then criticized his Socialist rival.
What Mr. Hollande has not understood is that we should speak to everybody. There will be no deal with the FN, no ministers for them, but I have to take them into account and not feel I have to hold my nose, Sarkozy declared.
Considering that Sarkozy finished just 1.4 percentage points behind Hollande in the first go-around (28.6 percent to 27.2 percent), the incumbent could conceivably gain enough of the FN constituency in order to defeat Hollande in the final election.
Complicating matters is that Le Pen has so far said she will not endorse either Sarkozy or Hollande – which might lead to many FN voters boycotting the election. In that event, Hollande, who has the support of Socialists and the far-left, would easily waltz into the Élysée Palace.
Hence, Sarkozy would have to take a sizable chunk of Le Pen’s voters in order to be re-elected.
That could be a tall order given that Sarkozy is widely criticized for France’s weakening economy, which features 12 percent unemployment as well as growing discontent with the European Union.
Douglas Yates, professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris and the American University of Paris, said he believes the Le Pen voters will indeed vote for Sarkozy in the final round of elections.
“The polls show 60 percent of [Le Pen supporters] voting for Sarkozy, with the rest either abstaining or voting for Hollande,” Yates said.
“But the polls have not been getting the FN vote right… They did not properly predict the FN score in the first round. The pollsters have asked FN voters if they would vote in the second round. Most said they would not. I do not believe them.”
Indeed, Yates said Marine Le Pen may be the key to Sarkozy’s political future.
“The real question is whether or not Marine will convince [her supporters] to vote against Sarkozy,” he said.
“Her current strategy is to implode Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. It appears that she would rather see Sarkozy lose and his party collapse -- which would leave her and the FN as the sole opposition bloc on the Right -- than she would see her supporters vote against the Left. If she convinces her supporters to attack Sarkozy and the UMP, then Hollande will win. Otherwise, Sarkozy will get re-elected. My bet is the final tally will be 51-49, something much closer than the predictions of the pollsters.”
[The Institut français d'opinion publique (Ifop) poll currently suggests Hollande will win the second round with 55 percent of the vote]
Sarkozy’s tactics have already drawn some outrage.
François Bayrou, the Centrist candidate who came in fifth with about 9 percent of the vote, has bitterly criticized Sarkozy for flirting with the extreme right-wing.
This race on one's belly for FN themes is humiliating,” Bayrou blasted.
To pretend that the imbalances in the social accounts are down to immigrants is to renounce half a century of social progress in France.
However, the Socialist Hollande has also appeared to make some conciliatory comments about far-right supporters, suggesting they are voting out of ”anger” and not necessarily from a fixed ideology.
Bizarrely, Hollande may even win over some of Le Pen’s supporters since the Socialist candidate has spoken of easing austerity, focusing on jobs growth, raising taxes on millionaires, while espousing a generally anti-Euro position (stances shared by many on the far right). Yates said that in order to appeal to the far-right, Hollande will have to avoid scaring them with leftist rhetoric.
“He has taken great pains to avoid sending any clear messages that he is from the political Left,” Yates noted.
“His strategy has been to occupy the Center. This is what he did in the Socialist primaries, enabling him to eliminate his more progressive Socialist rivals. This is also what he did in the first round of the presidential elections, once again, allowing him to outperform his more progressive Green and Communist rivals on the Left. Now he is standing in the Center and counting on everyone to his Left voting for him, or at least, voting against Sarkozy.”
Perhaps the most important thing Hollande has in common with FN voters, Yates asserted, is their shared hatred of Sarkozy.
In the event Hollande wins the election, he will be surrounded by conservative leaders in Europe who are committed to aggressive spending cuts in order to tackle the euro zone debt crisis. Hollande’s anti-austerity proposals would no doubt be met with hostility and derision across much of Europe.
Yates suggests that Hollande’s mild-mannered style would make it difficult for the Paris government to resist the fiscal demands of other EU leaders.
“The political style of François Hollande is more consensual,” Yates said.
“His method has been to gather everyone around a table and try to find an acceptable compromise. In French they have called this method ‘synthesis.’ The problem for Hollande is trying to create a ‘synthesis’ in Europe around a major shift in policy towards Keynesianism. Sarkozy already bargained hard for a common policy. The only European leader to opt out was David Cameron, the British prime minister. If Holland wants to revisit that negotiated settlement, he will need strong support from Germany and Britain, and a will of steel. This is not his personality, therefore I doubt he could achieve anything so grand on the European stage. He is more likely to seek to please his EU partners and, in the end, change nothing.”
And what of Marine Le Pen, who is only 42 years old has already surpassed the popularity of her father, Jean-Marie, the founder of FN?
“Marine Le Pen has managed to raise her father's party from the dead,” Yates said.
“The FN is presently expected to win many seats in the upcoming legislative elections. She is already a regional council-woman, and with a solid voting bloc in the National Assembly, she could play the role of a ‘spoiler.’”
Marine will likely not join any government of the left or right, Yates noted, however she is positioning herself and her party to play the role of parliamentary opposition.
“If she can do this, then she will strengthen her hand for the next presidential election,” he added.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.