In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen surprised many by making it through to the second round of the French presidential elections with 16.86% of the vote, beating Lionel Jospin, then leader of the French Socialist Party. The results caused serious shock, and seemed to be a wake-up call to the political realities in France at the time: the French were tired of hearing the same rhetoric from the same politicians and wanted a change. There were also pressing issues such as insecurity and immigration, which led to a move to the far right by some of the French electorate. In the end however, France was spared a far right leader and Jacques Chirac went back to the Elysée.
What were the reasons behind Jean-Marie Le Pen’s unprecedented success in 2002? How did he succeed in taking everyone by surprise? Several theories exist to explain this, amongst which are the over-exploitation of the theme of “insecurity” by the media, and the media’s influence the voters’ final choice in both rounds. In 2002, the theme of insecurity and people’s fear of rising violence in France was used during the campaigning period for the election and built upon by Jean-Marie Le Pen, making it a decisional vote factor for candidates and voters alike. Voters who were tired of Jacques Chirac, and who had little confidence in Lionel Jospin’s ability to tackle the problem, decided to translate this into a vote for the Front National.
There are several interesting points to be made about this vote. First of all, the first round of voting saw the highest level of abstention ever: 28.4% of people did not vote. Secondly, a surprising number of people were not interested in the upcoming presidential election (60.9%) and did not really care what would happen until Le Pen took everyone by surprise. Finally, at the time most people felt that there was no longer a clear divide between the policies of the parties of the Left and Right, leading to a stronger feeling of apathy towards the “usual suspects”. All of these factors put together can explain to some extent Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in 2002. However as it is already known, he did not make it through the second round, and did not meet the same success, in the 2007 presidential elections.
But with Marine Le Pen at the head of the Front National, and the 2012 presidential elections only a year away, the party might be able to repeat its success of 2002, and France’s long-standing extreme-right party are worth fearing for several reasons. First of all, in 2012 there will still be certain themes that can be played upon which will be to the FN’s advantage as insecurity was in 2002. Amongst these are: immigration, and the eternal fear of Muslim immigrants as well as, more recently, Roma people; the Euro and the EU, which nowadays are resented by most people; the usual war on crime; and of course French nationalism, which even Nicolas Sarkozy himself has recently tried to appeal to.
These are themes that have long been spearheads of the FN’s policy, and it has shown that it is prepared to take tough stances on these matters. At a time when people are once again dissatisfied with their current president, and looking for someone who will be capable of bringing about change, it’s possible that the Front National’s strong rhetoric could appeal to more than its usual amount of devout followers.
However the real change that is likely to put the Front National in a more advantageous position is Marine Le Pen herself. Finally, the party has rid itself of its 82-year-old leader to replace him with a younger woman. As his daughter, followers can be guaranteed that she will carry on his legacy (although this is disputed), yet as a 42-year-old she is no longer playing to veterans of the Second World War, or those of the war in Algeria. She is playing to a different generation whose needs she understands much better than her father did.
Furthermore, her rhetoric is calmer than that of her father, even if her beliefs are no less strong, which means that she will be better at winning over people who are either undecided, or who are not happy with the position of the centre-right parties. Marine herself states that her aim is to widen the appeal of her party to “all French people”. She is pro-abortion, divorced and single mother of three, all of which add to her appeal as a “softer” face of the FN, someone more modern and moderated yet still prepared to stand for her and the party’s beliefs.
She is also said to be excellent on television, a good orator, and well aware of social media and networking which are nowadays crucial to any successful campaign, and even more so in terms of politics. Politicians such as, for example, Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party, fear her success, well aware of Marine’s appeal and the fresh identity she will be giving the FN. Similarly, Nicolas Sarkozy is already aware of the danger Marine Le Pen represents, which can be seen by his tendency towards more extreme-right policies or actions over the past couple of months.
Considering that the Socialist Party has not yet chosen its candidate for the elections next year and that there seems to be a divide within the party itself, this could already be making things easier for Marine and her party in the first round of the elections. Furthermore, considering Nicolas Sarkozy’s current abysmal popularity ratings (34%) it is likely that voters will seek to get rid of him in the upcoming elections. A combination of factors seem to point towards a new era of success for the Front National in 2012, which could very well gain enough votes to make it through to the second round of the presidential elections.
However, the Front National still remains divided internally as not everyone supports Marine Le Pen. The party is also well known for its radical image and Marine has not yet moved away from the image left by her father. It will be an interesting year to watch the Front National and see whether or not they manage to repeat the success of 2002 and once again shock the French nation. Should they succeed in the first round, will the French once again turn out en masse at the ballots to prevent a FN president?
For a detailed analysis of the 2002 French presidential elections click here. This is the dissertation that I wrote for my undergraduate degree in 2007 whilst at the University of Nottingham, in which I analyse how the Front National managed such a good result in the first round of the presidential elections in 2002.