By Mikala Sorenson for Global Risk Insights
Discontent in France has translated into a drift of power towards the far right in the form of Front National. It no longer requires a very vivid imagination to envision Ms. Le Pen achieving an electoral victory in 2017.
Despite her party’s controversial past it has become much more socially acceptable to support the FN, to the extent that Marine Le Pen draws enthusiastic crowds to official events, and Madonna, who once superimposed a swastika on an image of Ms. Le Pen’s face at a concert, wants to “sit down and have a drink” with her.
None of this changes the fact that her political agenda remains subversive. She calls for an end to the EU and has adopted policies critical of the French allies, backing Putin’s annexation of Crimea. She also wants to raise wages and pensions, restore the retirement age to 60, as well as establish border controls and reinstate the death penalty.
Meanwhile, many voters hope that she will be the one to “save France,” in the belief that only radical policy changes can do so. Yet, it is highly questionable whether Ms. Le Pen’s vision, with its populist promises and scepticism towards free markets, free movement and free trade, is a road to salvation.
The spirit that brought 4 million French closer together and onto the streets in solidarity after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo has already waned, and the polling numbers show how FN’s protectionism, conservatism and nationalism appeals to voters en masse.
FN is part of a broader trend in Europe, where the lingering economic malaise and associated unemployment of the Eurozone has led significant numbers to respond to the easy attraction of the far right or far left.
It can best be described as the politics of scapegoating, whether the blame falls on immigrants, Muslims, Euro-bureaucrats or Jews like in FN’s past, and the tactics are mirrored all across Europe. Voters are disillusioned with the political elite, and as the traditional, centrist parties lose political capital, voters turn to the fringe, where promises of sweeping, popular action sound like a welcome overhaul of politics-as-usual.
Europe’s voters are increasingly drawn to protest parties
Syriza in Greece has been the first protest party to obtain real powers of government, and its doings are monitored closely, by centre and fringe parties alike. France, however, is a much bigger fish than Greece, and if Ms. Le Pen should happen to win the presidency, it would raise a number of awkward questions about French membership in the European Union.
Currently, FN is poised to round up 30% of the vote in the first of two rounds of regional elections on March 22nd and 29th. Although it is doubtful that FN will win many local assemblies, as voters from centre-right and left may gang up to exclude it, there will still be hundreds of seats across France filled by members of FN, forming a base for the presidential campaign in two years.
The polls indicate that Ms. Le Pen will probably make it to the second round in 2017, but that her chances of winning are slim, but existent. In the end, winning the presidency is perhaps the lesser goal. Governing does not always lend itself well to extreme policies and populist views. Furthermore, FN has already succeeded in changing France from a two- to a three-party system, which is no small feat.
Until 2017, the incumbent government will be under a lot of pressure. There are plenty of problems to address, and with FN racing ahead in the polls, consciousness of public opinion is likely to affect domestic and multilateral matters.
This could slow down the reform process that has been underway, such as Macron Law, which was passed by decree following a tense vote of confidence in Parliament, and make implementation less rigorous.
Public attitudes towards EU, Germany and Greece could also be affected by disturbing trends at home, which may have been a factor in the negotiations between Eurozone finance ministers in February. Here, France took a soft stance towards Greece and advocated that the other Eurozone members show understanding and respect for the change in leadership and the Greek electorate’s decision.
There is a small risk that French voters are going to set a similar shift in motion in the not-so-distant future, and if the economic consequences of a potential Grexit would be problematic and inconvenient, the results of a “Frexit,” although rooted in different causes, would be very messy indeed.