Marine Le Pen’s National Front blunts chance for reform in France

Can the French National Front’s Marine Le Pen win the next French presidential elections in 18 months? Can the leader of an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party — not merely anti-radical-Islamic — take the reigns of one of the world’s great democracies?

The question beckons after historical gains for the far-right National Front in the first round of French regional elections at the weekend. Final results won’t be known until after second-round voting next Sunday, but Ms Le Pen, 47, may be unassailable in the Picardy Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of six million people in the nation’s north. Her niece Marion Marechal Le Pen, 25 — who last month said Muslims could “not truly be French” — was a clear leader, also with 40 per cent of the vote, in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur.

According to the French Interior Ministry, the NF was leading after first-round voting in six of 12 newly established mainland administrations with 28 per cent of the vote nationally. Created in 1972, the Front has never governed a French region.

Nord-Picardy is the place of immediate implications for Australia. Under a territorial reform passed by the national parliament last year, the enlarged Nord-Picardy encompasses the French Western Front that includes such historically and spiritually important places for Australians as Villers-Bretonneux, Fromelles, Pozieres and Bullecourt, the sites of key World War I battles.

A victorious Madame Le Pen would be Picardy Nord-Pas-de-Calais Regional Council president, so a requisite invitee to Anzac Day  commemorations in the Somme and northern France. French Regional Councils are elected for six years.

The NF’s weekend electoral success completes an impressive triumvirate that began with local council elections last year. The Front won 11 municipalities — trebling its 1995 score — secured a district of Marseilles, the big immigrant city of the south, and two French towns with a population of 50,000 or more (Beziers and Frejus). Two months later, it topped European elections in France, winning 25 per cent of the vote.

Yet the Front’s most high-profile result was in 2002 when founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper, defeated Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin at the first round of presidential elections. Both sides of politics joined forces, an emboldened electorate rallying in the streets, to carry Jacques Chirac over the line with a Soviet-type score in the second-round run-off.

The cry was jamais encore (never again) but in fact things were better economically in France then than now. In the dozen years since the social problems undoing France have shown no sign of significant improvement. On the contrary. Unemployment has just risen to almost 11 per cent and in the housing-estate suburbs that border most big French cities it is much higher than that. The jihadi attacks in Paris added a new level of anxiety. According to French political scientist Gerard Grunberg, for many voters “there is an Islamic peril in France and we have been too tolerant towards it”.

Meantime, Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s youngest daughter, has had a degree of success in laundering the party’s image. Since taking the leadership four years ago from her father — who referred to the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail” of history — she has shrewdly combined old Left protectionist economic policies with a tough line on immigration. A handful of high-profile defections by newer party officials (frequently of non-French origin) dinted her popularity, claiming that only party window-dressing had changed — at the back of the shop, the Front was still xenophobic and sexist.

But a dent is all that it proved to be. Le Pen fille and the NF were expected to surge in the first electoral test for the French political class since the November 13 terrorist attacks. However, opinion polling has also shown a double-digit jump in approval for Socialist President Francois Hollande.

Security crises usually mean a boost for political incumbents yet the irony of the fillip for Hollande may ultimately help Le Pen. If she can defeat Hollande at the first round of the elections in 2017, she is unlikely to win against a candidate of the mainstream Right in the run-off, be it former president Nicolas Sarkozy or former prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon.

However, if Hollande is her opponent and France’s economic fortunes don’t improve, which is likely, it is by no means certain that la France profonde (deep France) would vote to return a centre-left president. This would make Le Pen president of France.

For Australia? How far Le Pen goes is in a sense a secondary consideration. The fact of her rise and rise, and the consequent loss of authority across the centre of French politics, has further blunted the prospects of serious economic reform in France. Sustained incapacity to fix the supply side of the economy, with its overly regulated product and labour markets, risks reducing the appetite of international business for trade liberalisation and investment in Europe’s second-largest economy.

Ms Le Pen is doing damage. The uncomfortable truth is that worse may still be to come.