French Elections 2012: Marine Le Pen is the Key Player

The second round of the French presidential elections on May 7 will see François Hollande oppose Nicolas Sarkozy. But the breakout of Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party has changed the election situation. Henceforth she arises as a referee in the duel between the two main contenders.

Now that Le Pen is out of the race, the two finalists are on the hunt of the 6.4 million French who voted for her and her National Front Party (FN). But while Hollande is proceeding in a somewhat subtle way to avoid wrinkling his electoral base, Sarkozy has hardened his campaign to capture votes (he needs at least 80% FN votes to win).

Le Pen emerged as the big surprise of the first round of elections with about 17.9% of votes, a historic score for her party. This rise is, however, also demonstrates a growing fear of foreigners among the French people.

With political speeches railing against immigrants for stealing French citizens' work and claiming that such foreign influx undermines French culture, the FN has been able to channel popular anger towards anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and French nationalism. Foreigners are thus blamed for the crisis and all the country’s problems.

We can imagine that FN voters will naturally turn to the other right wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, who also shares some of their basic beliefs. But that’s not necessarily the case. According to pollsters only 44% would vote for him, 21% for Hollande, while the rest would abstain or vote blank.

Nevertheless, the same institutes had not seen the rise of the FN coming as most of them were only crediting it with about 16% votes in the first round of the election. Therefore such data cannot be taken at face value, as voters could always change their minds.

As for now, Le Pen has refused to endorse either of the two contenders. She could call for Sarkozy vote if they came to an agreement on the forthcoming legislative election or on any cabinet positions to FN, if he wins. But he ruled out any alliance with them and she has every interest in seeing him losing the election. In this case she expects Sarkozy political party, the UMP, to burst. So that she could get its remnants and build a stronger, more extended and robust FN, and position itself as the main opposition force in the country.

Hollande is ideally placed to win, but he never really emerged as "the man of the situation," particularly because of his lack of experience. Indeed, he has never exercised any governmental function before. Moreover, during his campaign most current European leaders did not want to receive him, unlike Sarkozy. This left him somewhat isolated in the international scene. But in the absence of a better choice, people prefer him to the outgoing president, by far. In fact, in five years in office Sarkozy has only managed to raise people’s anger against him. Notably, by standing as the “president of the rich” and not keeping the promises made during his election in 2007.  As for now, it appears that only Le Pen could change the election tide on one side or the other.