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Sarkozy's Electoral Problem And France's Far Right

After a weak showing in Sunday’s first-round vote, French president Nicolas Sarkozy is scrambling for a bigger share of the electorate—and to get it, he’s making an appeal to France’s far right. That’s because the National Front party, led since last year by Marine Le Pen (daughter of the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen), took almost 18 percent of the vote, compared to Sarkozy’s 27 percent and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande’s 29 percent. The National Front’s reputation over the last several decades was defined in large part by the statements of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was known for xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. How much has the party changed?

A 2011 paper seems to say: Not much. The author acknowledges the view of some observers that under Marine Le Pen, “the political brand [of FN] [...] appears markedly different.” That’s because unlike her father, Marine is “professional in her persona and style, measured in her speech, and adept at public speaking”—in other words, she’s not given to off-the-cuff bigotry. Ultimately, however, Marine Le Pen “represents a continuation of the style and strategy that brought her father’s FN to a culmination point in 2002.” Like her father, Marine relies on the relative weakness of France’s major parties, she stresses issues like immigration and law and order, and she couches far-right positions in vague, populist terms. Even after 2011’s terrorist attack in Norway, Marine Le Pen chose to “remain noticeably silent” after her father chastised the Norwegian government for being unaware of the “dangers” of immigration. That may be a signal that Marine Le Pen’s National Front is still home to the same old-school radical right of her father’s day, and she is either unwilling or unable to challenge them. In other words, many of the NF voters sought by Sarkozy are an unreconstructed bunch—and as for Le Pen, the author drily concludes: “Holding together a party with sharp internal divisions may prove cumbersome.”