And The Winner Is…Marine Le Pen

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French politicians and pundits were in an tizzy Monday following the publication Sunday of a new poll showing extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen winning the first round of presidential voting were it held now. In it, Le Pen—who took over the presidency of the National Front (FN) party in January from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen—captured the backing of 23% of first round voters, compared to 21% for both President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party head Martine Aubry. That result not only confirmed Le Pen’s steady rise in popularity among French voters who once considered her party a pariah, but now has many mainstream politicians wigging out over a possible repeat of the 2002 election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned the world by qualifying for the run-off against incumbent President Jacques Chirac.

Let no one be mistaken: Le Pen fille has all the political talents of her formidable father, as well as several strengths he never possessed. Those are helping make Marine more accessible to mainstream voters who previously shunned the FN as neo-fascist–and despite the fact her positions mirror those of her old man. Meanwhile, Marine lacks many of the characteristics that made her father a notorious figure in France and the world—including his penchant for revisionism, anti-Semitic statements, and allying his party with neo-Nazi groups his daughter now says she’s now breaking with. For all those reasons, Marine Le Pen now enjoys greater—and growing—public approval than her father ever did, and has become a political force rivals will have to contend with for a good long time.

However, there are also reasons why this poll should be greeted with a bit of caution—and why Le Pen’s impressive rise may not allow her to qualify for the second round of presidential balloting still.

First among them is Sarkozy may overcome his truly baffling learning problem in time. For nearly two years now, Sarkozy and his ruling conservatives have sought to replicate his 2007 election feat of wooing FN voters to his side with new pledges to fight illegal immigration, wage a war on crime, and defend French culture and identity from corrupting (foreign) influences. That has resulted, among other things, in the campaign to expel thousands of Roma, the legal ban on the burqa, and a debate on national identity—most of which blew up in Sarkozy’s face by offending mainstream sensibilities as both xenophobic and unabashed pandering to the extreme-right. Indeed, following each new FN-inspired initiative, polls showed Sarkozy’s own popularity falling while Marine Le Pen’s rose as moderate conservatives and centrists recoiled in horror, and FN voters rallied around Le Pen as the only legitimate representative of their ideals. Despite that, conservatives are now astonishingly rolling out another divisive debate on “secularity and Islam’s place in France”—and already seeing their fortunes sag to Le Pen’s benefit.

Sarkozy can’t beat Le Pen by joining her. If the President continues legitimizing Le Pen’s positions by stealing them, he’ll only have himself to blame for losing his place in the 2012 run-off round to her. However, if he finally switches tactics and re-embraces conservatives’ traditional rejection of the FN as unacceptable, intolerant, and anti-Republican, he may restore waning voter shame in being associated with the Le Pen name and cause–and lure back moderates now flocking from him.

The second big factor is the (dis)unity element on both the right and left. If  Sarkozy ceases his flirtation with the extreme-right and re-solidifies conservatives and centrist behind him, he’ll have to overcome rival presidential bids aimed at depriving him a second-round spot by splitting the vote. The biggest threat in that manner is former conservative Prime Minister and archenemy Dominique de Villepin. Still, the yet-undesignated Socialist candidate will have the same problem—and similar leftist foes seeking to divide the vote even if that helps the right. If, as expected, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn wins the Socialist primary, his moderate policies mean he can forget the far-left, and must capture the center.

That’s even more reason for Sarkozy to reverse his failed wooing of the extreme right and turn again towards the center.  For now, it seems clear Le Pen will win somewhere between 15% and 20% of the first round poll, meaning Sarkozy must forget the hard right, win back moderates now leaning towards a probably Strauss-Kahn run, and seek to deepen the divisions on the left that have prevented the it from winning for decades now. A year’s an eternity in politics–and an uptick in the economy alone would lift he changes enormously–but he’ll need every day he has before the election to work a new strategy if and when he dumps his losing hard-right charge.

Finally: beware of insanely numerous French polls. In addition to the abundance of their surveys, polling agencies have come under attack for designing them to produce headline-grabbing results that are good for new business. Sunday’s poll, for example, has come under fire for polling a Sarkozy-Aubry-Le Pen confrontation, but not those involving other potential Socialist contenders–especially Strauss-Kahn, who’s considered by far the left’s best option. Those other polls are now said to be in the works–and may provide an idea of how ready conservatives are to vote for Le Pen when they see Sarkozy facing a stronger Socialist rival like Strauss-Kahn. Should those also show the Sarkozy being beaten by Le Pen, it may finally be enough to convince him–finally–to change his plan.

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