As Extreme-Right Embrace Lifts Sarkozy In Polls, Marine Le Pen Plans Reckoning

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to lift his sluggish re-election bid by luring extreme-right voters to his cause have escaped no one—and generated consternation and condemnation across France’s political spectrum.

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Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP / Getty Images

French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech at the Elysee presidential palace on March 14, 2012 in Paris.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to lift his sluggish re-election bid by luring extreme-right voters to his cause have escaped no one—and generated consternation and condemnation across France’s political spectrum. This week, the nation’s media took grim note of similar objections arising from across the Atlantic, where U.S. editorials have lamented Sarkozy’s attempt to recruit backers of National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen. Indeed, if the president’s overt beckoning to an electorate many in France consider xenophobic—even racist—hadn’t been bad enough, people in France already cringing over Sarkozy’s pandering winced even harder when Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal dubbed him “Nicolas Le Pen.” Yet as some chagrined French pundits suggested, the unattractive shoe not only fits– but Sarkozy has no scruples about wearing it.

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Don’t expect all that to razz the Elysée. If the renewed turn to the extreme-right that Sarkozy took during a mega-rally March 11 drew fire at home and abroad, it has also coincided with an apparent rise in his re-election fortunes. Two polls taken since Sarkozy’s speech proposing anti-immigration and mildly Euroskeptic proposals have shown him closing or even surpassing the lead that Socialist front-runner François Hollande had long enjoyed. Though conflicting surveys by rival agencies indicate, Hollande’s leads in the first and run-off rounds remain commanding, the pair of improved polls will allow Sarkozy and his advisers to insist his strategy of reaching out to the far-right is paying off. And that, as they’ve long predicted, will again lift Sarkozy to victory in May just as his appeal to FN voters won him the Elysée in 2007.

That remains to be seen—especially with evidence indicating that Sarkozy’s earlier pandering to FN voters hadn’t provoked significant defection from Le Pen’s camp to his. Instead, his repeated presidential initiatives courting the extreme right—holding national debates on French identity; banning full-veil burqas in public that estimates said fewer than 2,000 Muslim women in France wear; demonstrating his anti-immigration mettle by expelling thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma, etc.—all resulted in the opposite. Each new gesture towards extreme-right voters saw Le Pen’s popularity surge , her positions legitimized in the eyes of mainstream voters who had considered her party a pariah before, and Sarkozy’s own support eroded. Indeed, many centrists, traditional conservatives, and even some rightist politicians who stuck by Sarkozy in 2007 despite his overtures to FN voters are now dumping him in disgust.

(MORE: And The Winner Is…Marine Le Pen)

With the two new polls suggesting that campaign ploy may be working again, however, it’s likely the ever-confident Sarkozy views the shrinking of his moderate flank as the price for winning bigger support on the extreme-right. His apparent bounce in surveys notwithstanding, Sarkozy’s strategy is a very risky and possibly disastrous wager.

This isn’t 2007, when the FN was headed by the aging Jean-Marie Le Pen–whose status as the eternal protest candidate made him vulnerable to vote-poaching by an electable rival promising to turn attention to extreme-right position in the Elysée. This time Sarkozy’s facing Marine Le Pen, the 43-year-old single mother whose positions on reproductive rights, issues concerning gay couples, banishment of religion from public life, and protection of social services and the French welfare state offer her a far more modern and accessible profile—albeit one with notoriously Islamophobic and nationalist facets.

Meantime, Marine possesses all the political talents and formidable oratory strengths her father boasted, but without the penchant for creating the incessant scandals, lawsuits, and labels of neo-fascism the elder Le Pen had. And with Marine just this week having cleared the last administrative hurdle to qualify for the presidential race, she, too, stands to see her polling numbers get a lift as hesitant voters start considering her candidacy seriously.

(MORE: Sarkozy’s Xenophobia: French President Panders to the Extreme-Right)

Recent surveys project Le Pen getting about 17% of first round votes April 22—well below the 20% level she flirted with last year. Her current take is also far less than even the lowest scores Sarkozy now gets—a minimum in the mid-20s. Yet Le Pen represents a singular danger to Sarkozy. Polls taken during previous presidential elections usually registered far lower voter intent for Jean-Marie Le Pen than he wound up winning—a result of the stigma that prevented many people from admitting support for the FN. That under-estimated support—and a diverse field of candidates similar to this year’s crop—allowed the elder Le Pen to sneak by the Socialist candidate in 2002 to qualify for the run-off against incumbent Jacques Chirac. That extreme-right end-around is still considered a humiliating national trauma in France—and one Marine feels she can replicate, this time at the mainstream right’s expense.

Even if she fails to do that, Le Pen could otherwise confound Sarkozy’s re-election. According to French media reports, internal party deliberations have shown a majority of FN members airing a preference for backing Socialist Hollande over Sarkozy—or simply abstaining–in the event Le Pen doesn’t make the run-off stage. That hostility is said to reflect extreme-right voter anger over having been seduced by Sarkozy in 2007. Many of those same FN militants are also reportedly disgusted at Sarkozy attempting that same ploy now by invading turf their heroine Marine has been cultivating with considerable success. In addition to the anger that’s generated against Sarkozy, some FN strategists also calculate that helping Hollande into the Elysée during a prolonged period of euro instability and economic turmoil may be the extreme-right’s best shot of entering 2017 elections as a governing alternative to inefficient mainstream parties.

Whatever the actual motives, that mix of factors leaves it very unclear as to whether Sarkozy’s renewed extreme-right gamble will wind up producing the big electoral gains he’s betting on.

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