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Could Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front beat all other French political parties in this month’s European elections? Following the FN’s impressive performance in municipal elections in March, several polls show it moving ahead of President François Hollande’s Socialists and the neo-Gaullist UMP. French commentators are already speaking of a political “earthquake”. The massive headline in the left-leaning daily Libération read simply: “Le choc”.
But wait. That headline, in response to FN electoral success, actually appeared the day after the European elections of June 1984. In the 30 years since, the party has inspired consternation, even panic, in France at regular intervals. It did so in 1988 and 1995, when party founder (and father of Marine) Jean-Marie Le Pen won roughly 15 per cent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections, coming within just a few points of candidates from the leading parties. In 2002, with a first-round vote of almost 17 per cent, he finished ahead of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, making it into the second round (at which point the left held its collective nose and propelled UMP incumbent Jacques Chirac to a decisive victory).
Even if the FN does come first in the European election – which French voters have traditionally seen as an opportunity to register a protest against their country’s political elite – it will not score much higher than 20 per cent. Its chances of winning a presidential or legislative election any time soon remain close to zero, despite Ms Le Pen’s repeated claims that she is “ready to rule”. In short, even if the “earthquake” takes place, the struts and beams of the Fifth Republic are unlikely to collapse.
Make no mistake, however: since 1984, the FN has gone beyond merely inducing heart palpitations in the country’s chattering classes. Its electoral strength has changed the way France deals with immigration and immigrants. A strong showing this month could extend its influence much further, notably on European policy.
In the 1980s, in reaction to the FN’s breakthrough, Charles Pasqua, neo-Gaullist interior minster, took a series of high-profile steps to deport illegal immigrants, which the Socialists continued on their return to office. In 1991 Mr Chirac, then Paris mayor, took a page from Mr Le Pen’s xenophobic playbook in a speech railing against an “overdose” of immigration. French workers, he declared, could be forgiven for objecting to the “noise and smell” of their immigrant neighbours. After the widespread violence that shook immigrant communities in 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, attacked the rioters as “scum” and “hoodlums”, and suggested cleaning out a Muslim-majority town with a power hose. He regularly decried the slow pace at which immigrant communities were integrating into French life; and in 2007, on becoming president, he set up a ministry of immigration, integration and national identity to hasten the process.
Laws passed in the past few years banning “ostentatious” religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves in schools and full-face coverings such as the burka in public, in theory reflect the French Republic’s longstanding commitment to secularism in public life. But would parliament have passed them without the pressure created by the FN to be seen addressing the “problem” of immigrant communities?
Since succeeding her father as head of the FN in 2011, Ms Le Pen has tried to mute the party’s overt racism and anti-Semitism. She has also attacked globalisation, neoliberalism and the US in language at times strangely recalling that of the far left (it was the French, of course, who coined the phrase “Les extrêmes se touchent”). She has called for France’s withdrawal from Nato – but, for the French, it is the EU that represents by far the most prominent incarnation of global integration. Ms Le Pen has denounced the Lisbon treaty as illegitimate, demanded a return to the franc and proposed a referendum on the country’s EU membership. This tactic has allowed her to build on her father’s electoral achievements. If she can extend these successes this month, politicians from the leading parties will almost certainly harden their own attitudes to Europe, just as their predecessors did on immigration.
This particular shift, however, could not be taking place at a worse time. The euro may well have been a bad idea. But at a moment when Ukraine is in turmoil, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is flexing its muscles and US global influence is waning, European unity is arguably more important than ever. In this sense, even if the latest “choc” from Ms Le Pen’s FN is nothing new, it may still do more real damage than any of those that preceded it.