Is Marine Le Pen Really the Candidate to Beat in the French Election?

Marine Le Pen
France's far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen poses in front of a poster for her 2017 presidential election campaign, Paris, November 16, 2016. Charles Platiau/ REUTERS

With less than five months to go before the first round of the presidential elections in France, and days after François Fillon was elected to stand as the mainstream right candidate, the focus of much of the media remains anchored on Marine Le Pen. According to most polls, and against whichever candidate, the leader of the far right party seems poised to reach the second round of the election. The possibility of another 21 April 2002 seems to be on everyone's mind.

Fifteen years ago, Le Pen's father created an "earthquake" in French politics by beating the center left candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election, before losing in the second round to Jacques Chirac, who received more than 82 percent of the vote. What became known as the "Republican front" saw all parties but one on the extreme left asking their electorate to vote for Chirac in the second round. Times have changed, and the process of modernization undertaken by the National Front (NF), coupled with the normalization of its politics under the Sarkozy presidency in particular, have made the efficacy and even possibility of a "Republican front" much more uncertain.

It is difficult to imagine that the Parti Socialiste and the radical left could ask its supporters to turn to Fillon, whose candidature thus far has been based on hard-right politics, in terms of both economic and societal matters. Likewise, if the PS or the left were to reach the second round against Le Pen, it would seem counter-intuitive for a radicalized Republican party to side with the left. Does that mean that Le Pen could be in for a shot at the presidency? That remains unlikely as the party has so far failed to receive more than 6.5 million votes, while Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and François Hollande in 2012 needed between 18 and 19 million votes to win the second round. However, Le Pen increasing her share of the vote to even 10 million votes would send shockwaves throughout French and European politics, legitimize her new status as a serious contender and normalize further the return of the far right as a major player.

While the threat posed by a growing far right must be taken seriously, and while a victory or progression to the second round would have very real repercussions, a more nuanced approach to the rise of the NF should be taken, to understand the challenges our democracies are currently facing. As was the case with Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., the rise of the NF is but one of the symptoms currently plaguing our democratic system. So far, the NF has never managed to appeal to more than 14 percent of the registered vote despite some very favorable circumstances.

Similarly, the most recent tally in the United States shows that Donald Trump received fewer votes not only than Hillary Clinton, but also than the two previous Republican candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain. When all potential voters are taken into account, only 19.5 percent voted for Trump. Similarly, when taking abstention into account, only 37 percent voted for Brexit, and in this case for very different reasons and with no precise plan in mind.

Again, these results have very real consequences, yet they are not the popular earthquakes we have been hearing about, both from right-wing populists themselves, and from the media in search of shocking news. So much for these politics being supported by a mythical and conveniently silent majority. A tiny but incredibly loud minority, particularly prevalent on social media, has made us believe that they are something more than the small remnants of a bygone era, when being able to be racist, sexist and homophobic was a tribute to free speech. If it does indeed exist, this silent majority has not been swayed en masse by far-right reactionary promises.

While the far right has certainly benefited from this discontent, it has only managed so far to appeal to a minority of the great mass of those increasingly alienated by our political system. In the latest Eurobarometer survey, 91.31 percent of French respondents declared they do not trust their political parties (with only 3.9 percent declaring they do). The picture in the U.K. is not much better with 78.42 percent against 16.78 percent. In the U.S., according to a Gallup poll, trust in political leaders was at a record 42 percent low, prior to the November election.

With the media and mainstream politicians focusing their attention almost entirely on the far right, and hyping its support, we can only expect these movements to grow in legitimacy, and the search for a positive alternative to be postponed further, thus deepening the crisis in our democracies. Currently, French politicians appear to be ignoring such facts, with the Republicans pushing ahead with their radicalization, and the center left unable to face its own shortcomings and divisions after five dismal years in power which have left most of its supporters at a loss. As with every story, there is a silver lining, and the death of the old ways of doing politics could herald the birth of new progressive movements, and force those who have given up on the system to take matters into their own hands. If the far right has managed to mainstream its ideas, nothing prevents progressives from doing the same.

Aurelien Mondon is senior lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Bath.