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What Le Pen’s success means for Europe’s far-right

First published by Haaretz

Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) obtained an impressive result in the Sunday French presidential elections, when it took third place with 18% of the votes. However, it should be remembered that Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came second during the 2002 presidential elections with 17% of the vote; he eliminated Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin and gave the final victory to the Gaullist Jacques Chirac during the second round, with more than 80% of the votes.

On the background of the severe European economic crisis, Marine Le Pen’s political agenda appeals to a growing number of French citizens when it calls for “another vision of man, another vision of the economy,” and for putting “French interests first, above the interests of the financial markets, and above the interests of other nations, including Europe.” She focuses on immigration, the security of the individual and the denial of voting rights for foreigners. Three days after the death of the French terrorist Mohammed Merah, she declared radical Islam should be brought “to its knees.”

Interestingly, Nicolas Sarkozy’s swift and tough response to Merah’s terrorist attack in Toulouse against Jewish schoolchildren and French soldiers did not get the results he had hoped for his electoral campaign.

It should be noted that Marine Le Pen took over the leadership of the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in January 2011, broadened its appeal, dropped her father’s racist and anti-Semitic hate speech, which got him court convictions, and promoted women and workers.

The FN’s success should also be understood on the background of the unprecedented electoral success of far-right political parties in the past five years in Austria, the Netherlands, or Scandinavia. Wilders’s Freedom Party is the third-largest in the Netherlands. In Scandinavia, the True Finns, the Danish People’s Party, and the Sweden Democrats all secured their best-ever electoral results over the past two years; the Jobbik party is the third-largest political party in Hungary, having doubled its seats during the last election. Germany’s and Austria’s far-right parties are resurgent.

This not always ‘new’ radical right has captured the mood of disaffected voters, often espousing the language of liberal democracy. It portrays mainstream politicians as “spineless, soft-boiled, venal, self-serving slaves to political correctness and orthodoxy.” These parties have in common a deep rightwing cultural conservatism; oppose mass immigration, globalization and international finance.

In the 6th May run-off for French president both candidates will court the more than six million FN voters in the first round, whose support will be crucial in determining the outcome of the election.

It is quite clear that the strategy of Marine Le Pen is to call the party’s supporters to abstain or vote with a blank ballot, rather than support Sarkozy or the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, who has already received the backing of other first round left-wing candidates.

Le Pen is betting on Sarkozy’s defeat on May 6th, followed by an implosion of his party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). This will permit her party to run in the best conditions for the legislative elections this June, for what she terms the “third round”, in order to build“a new right opposition,” allowing her to become “the glue for a new sovereign-patriotic movement.”

It remains to be seen if this strategy will succeed in transforming the FN into the strongest far-right party in one of the key states in the European Union, with all its implications for France and Europe itself.