Written by Hilary Barnes
The result of a by-election for a seat in France’s National Assembly on June 23 may indicate that an important change in the political landscape is on its way, according to French political commentators.
In the election, caused when the former budget minister in the government of President François Hollande confessed that he had lied about having a Swiss bank account, the Socialist candidate was eliminated in the first round, the eighth bi-election loss by the government since it came into office in May last year.
These results have cut is absolute majority in the National Assembly to three, but as long as its allies, the Ecologists and the far-left members of the assembly remain loyal the government is safe.
In the run-off, the 23-year-old candidate for the far-right National Front, anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation and opposed to France’s membership of the Eurozone single currency union. The party is led by Marine Le Pen in succession to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. It took 47.3% of the vote against the candidate for the Gaullist conservative party, the UMP.
This has shaken the political establishment. Marine Le Pen won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of last year’s Presidential election, but in the subsequent National Assembly election the National Front won only two seats, thanks to an electoral system designed to marginalise it.
If it could keep up its score in the bi-election or improve it a notch or two, it might become much less marginal in future.
For François Hollande, the most unpopular President in the history of the Fifth Republic, say the opinion polls, there is always the fear that in the 2017 Presidential election he will suffer the fate of the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in 2001.
He was relegated to third place in the first round of the Presidential election in 2001. The run off was between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac won with over 80% of the vote.
The rise of the National Front, however, is also a serious concern for the UMP, which, now in opposition, is hobbled by internecine warfare between those who hope to be its candidate in the 2017 Presidential election.
This is a quarrel between personalities first and foremost, but political principles are also at stake.
The three main contenders are François Fillon, Prime Ministers for the five-year Presidency of Nicolas Sarkory (losing candidate in 2012), Jean-François Copé, the President of the UMP, and Sarkozy himself.
He has not publically declared himself but lets it be known privately, say the French media, that he considers himself the only person man enough to sort out the problems with which France is struggling as well as the UMP’s little local difficulties and calls Fillon a “traitor” and a “con“, a word that can be translated in many ways, one not fit for publication in a respectable blog, but “bloody idiot” might do the job.
The political issue at stake is the UMP’s attitude to the National Front. To date it has flatly refused any electoral co-operation with the National Front, either in national or local government elections. This is to say that when there is a seat which the National Front might have a better chance of winning than the UMP, the UMP has refused to withdraw its candidate or advise supporters to vote for the UMP.
François Fillon is adamant that this principle must continue to be practised by the party.
Jean-François Copé and Sarkozy are wavering, arguing that the priority must be to obtain a majority for the combined right-wing parties, even if it might mean there are more National Front Members in the National Assembly, potentially with considerable leverage on the UMP, even perhaps the king-maker in a hung assembly.
Copé’s word for it is a “right-wing without complexes” (“decomplexé“).
Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, is a less abrasive character than her father and has ceased to emphasise the immigration issue (she has not dropped it). This may have persuaded UMP opinion that the National Front is not after all, “outside the pale”, or in the vocabulary of French political discourse, can be regarded as “republicaine“.
A party that is not “republicaine” is a euphemism for “not respectable“, perhaps not reliably democratic, but does not actually mean that the party in question wishes to overthrow the republic or restore the monarchy.