A Dangerous Game: Why Sarkozy’s Bid for Far-Right Votes May Backfire

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Lionel Bonaventure / Reuters

France's President and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with supporters as he arrives to deliver a speech as part of a campaign political rally in Le Raincy, near Paris, April 26, 2012.

The electoral dilemma facing French presidential finalists Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande is as urgent as it is heavy with risk: how to lure the nearly 6.5 million voters who backed extreme-right candidate leader Marine Le Pen in first round voting to their respective May 6 run-off bids? With polls showing Socialist front-runner Hollande beating incumbent Sarkozy in their show-down anywhere from six to 10 points, neither rival can afford to ignore the nearly 18% of voters who cast initial ballots for Le Pen. Yet with Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, Islamophobic National Front (FN) party considered pariah by the French mainstream, reaching out in her direction carries the danger of Hollande and Sarkozy being denounced for cynically pandering to reactionaries.

Yet reach they must—and like their considerably contrasting second round prospects, the ways Sarkozy and Holland are beckoning to the extreme right are also clashing. “Hollande Struggling With The FN Vote,” headlined Wednesday’s le Monde of the Socialist’s tentative, almost agonized gestures to Le Pen voters. Elsewhere the paper compared that to the president’s approach, running the headline, “Sarkozy Courts FN Electorate Without Restraint.”

Le Monde wasn’t the only French media focusing on the battle for Le Pen voters as critical to the presidential race—and to the shape of France’s future political landscape. Wednesday’s edition of Communist daily l’Humanité decried Sarkozy’s pilfering of traditional extreme-right themes since Sunday’s first round by comparing him to France’s World War II collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain.

Left-leaning Libération fumed over what it said was Sarkozy’s desperate effort to stay in power by kowtowing to an electorate whose intolerant positions have long been considered an affront to fundamental French democratic and egalitarian values. “Le Pen Is Compatible With The Republic” mocked the April 26 editor of Libération, quoting a Sarkozy stump retort to protests over his FN lean. “Sarkozy’s Re-Conquest Of FN Voters”, optimistically cheered the militantly pro-Sarkozy le Figaro the same day.

Given his repeated bows to extreme-right voters in the past, it’s not surprising Sarkozy is brazenly staking out positions dear to the FN to bolster his sinking re-election prospects. But even if that worked once, it’s a gamble. Taking the hard line on issues like crime, immigration, protection, and European Union encroachment on French sovereignty succeeded in mobilizing FN supporters to his victorious 2007 campaign. However, each attempt to replicate that exploit since has invariably resulted in his own decline in polls—and corresponding rise in Le Pen’s numbers. Still, faced with looming defeat May 6, Sarkozy clearly feels there’s no alternative to lurching even farther right now.

Though polls project him winning the final comfortably, Hollande believes the final margin will be much slimmer. He therefore can’t risk surrendering all Le Pen voters to Sarkozy’s recruiting. Yet aware of the mutual contempt Socialists and far-right extremists hold for each other, Hollande knows it’s futile reaching out to all but a select portion of people who voted for Le Pen. As a result, he’s endeavoring to speak largely to working class voters and traditional Socialist supporters whose rising disenchantment led them to veer in anger towards Le Pen.

Jacky Naegelen / Reuters

“These are people whose fears about unemployment, the [euro] crisis, and globalization caused them to lose patience with our proposals and turn to Le Pen in anger or protest,” says PS official and Hollande campaign spokeswoman Delphine Batho. “Our job is to show them their interests are still best defended by the PS—not by the FN, and not by Sarkozy.”

That electorate isn’t a large enough portion of the 18% who voted for Le Pen April 22 to secure Hollande’s victory on its own. However, luring enough of those people back to the Socialist fold could act with other factors to secure Sarkozy’s defeat.

Surveys taken since Sunday reflect Le Pen voters divided roughly into thirds on second round intent. One group says it plans to back Sarkozy; another indicates it will back Hollande to get rid of the president; and the remainder is leaning towards abstention. Those numbers could change after May 1, when Le Pen is widely expected to call on her followers to cast ballots against Sarkozy—though without endorsing Hollande as such.

The reasons for that anticipated move are as personal as they are political. Le Pen remains furious over Sarkozy’s repeated moves to poach her political turf and electorate, and exploit her embattled stand for his own gain. Meanwhile, Le Pen also believes Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Majority party will implode if it’s defeated in presidential and legislative elections this spring. Should that happen, Le Pen calculates, she’ll represent the pole around which a new hard-right movement can be assembled as a major force in French political life. Sarkozy’s current FN foray, then, would simultaneously secure his defeat and remove the taint of extremism and illegitimacy that has until now caused her movement to be shunned by mainstream voters and parties.

Even if that major re-composition doesn’t take place, it seems likely Sarkozy’s embrace of Le Pen voters will allow the extreme right to occupy a much larger, more central role in French political life from now on. The likelihood of that increases further no matter who wins the Elysée, given the palpable anger, fear, and disillusionment of much of the French electorate. Under that scenario, the same Marine Le Pen who finished third on April 22 could yet become the biggest long-term winner in France’s 2012 election.