New French Poll, Same Result: Marine Le Pen Leads All Presidential Rivals

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After the controversy of the first poll comes confirmation in the second. Just 48 hours after a Harris Interactive survey simulating voter intention for the first round of France’s 2012 presidential election found extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen finishing first, a second wave of polling not only reaffirms Le Pen’s domination of all rivals—but finds incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy failing to qualify for the run-off stage of polling.

The new poll features a field of first round candidates that again includes Sarkozy, Le Pen, and a gaggle of probable also-rans the first one did, but also cites the presence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn—the current head of the International Monetary Fund, who’s considered the Socialist Party’s strongest and most likely standard-bearer. But contrary to what many pundits expected, the new survey still finds Le Pen coming out ahead of all first round contenders with 24%, followed by Strauss-Kahn with 23%, and Sarkozy’s 21%. Under French election rules, that would mean the President wouldn’t even qualify for the second round of voting—an unheard of situation reflecting the deep unhappiness with Sarkozy’s leadership. This month Sarlozy’s approval rating slipped to a record low of just 22% after months of hovering around 25%.

That outcome surprised many commentators who had kicked up a fuss about the initial, buzz-generating survey Sunday that showed National Front leader Le Pen winning the initial first-round simulation. That poll had used most of the same probable candidates as the follow-up did, with one major difference: rather than positing the presence of the popular Strauss-Kahn, the first scenario cited Socialist leader Martine Aubry as her party’s nominee. Though Aubry is a respected and solid candidate in her own right, her more leftist lean chills many centrists who’ve defected from Sarkozy’s ranks, and have been more inclined to back the more moderate program Strauss-Kahn could be expected to propose. The choice of a relatively weaker Aubry in the first poll, detractors claimed, was simply to insure polling agency Harris International the spectacular outcome of a Le Pen victory in the first simulation. Were Harris International to reproduce the survey with Strauss-Kahn in her place, they argued, the result would doubtless find the popular IMF chief far ahead of a second-place Sarkozy—who, for his part, would win back the support of disgruntled rightist voters who’d drop their protest backing of Le Pen, and would rally to the President to fend off the surge of a more serious Strauss-Kahn threat from the left.

It turns out voters didn’t react as expected, which blows holes in a lot of presumptions about Le Pen’s steady rise, and slow transformation in the eyes of many voters as a legitimate candidate from a party long considered a pariah. First among those is that while it’s certain a number of people now saying they’ll vote for Le Pen in the first round are indeed projecting an anger they’ll manage to control on polling day to cast a ballot for their usual mainstream party, Le Pen isn’t simply the temporary outlet for fury that many pundits maintained. She’s clearly set to be a major force in 2012 polling—and a real threat to either qualify for the second round herself, or directly shape who does.

The second lesson is that while it’s clear Le Pen is without doubt benefiting from Sarkozy’s own disastrous attempts to embrace her anti-immigration, law-and-order, Islam-bashing positions in the hopes of wooing back her voters—and thereby sending the signal to his own defecting mainstream rightist supporters that Le Pen isn’t the pariah her father was–it isn’t only traditional conservatives who are dumping the President in favor of Le Pen. Strauss-Kahn’s relatively weak tally—and second place finish to Le Pen in the simulation—confirms earlier studies indicating leftists, too, have gotten fed up with traditional parties, and are turning to her as an outsider ready to seriously shake things up. Sarkozy may personally be the principal target of voter rejection these days, but it’s France’s entire sclerotic political establishment that’s under attack—and Marine Le Pen is by far the most effective outsider lobbing grenades into that cushy citadel.

To repeat these caveats in yesterday’s post: there is—without doubt—a significant degree of anger-telegraphing going on now, with people vocally registering protest votes for Le Pen that they won’t drop in the ballot box in May, 2012. And, it’s also true, 14 months is an eternity in politics: an economic upturn, a national calamity uniting the French behind their president, or Sarkozy’s own reversal of his spectacularly failed strategy of trying to replicate Le Pen in the hopes of stealing her voters could lift him to re-election yet.  But the new poll should inspire both Sarkozy and his Socialist rivals to rethink the canned lines about Le Pen being a symbolic outlet for anger, and start coming up with their own credible-sounding recipes for change. The voter anger is real and isn’t going to go away–and is already making Le Pen a far better bet to win a second round slot than her father was when he achieved that coup in 2002.