A recent French poll on voter intentions for the 2014 European Parliament elections produced a curious result: neither the governing party nor the main opposition party emerged ahead. A surprising one in four voters indicated support for the far-right National Front. Led by Marine Le Pen, the party currently controls three of France’s 74 seats in the 766 member European Parliament. However, if the polls are accurate, France’s far-right could establish itself in this influential body.
On October 13, National Front candidate Laurent Lopez emerged victorious in the by-election in Brignoles, a small city in southern France. Energized by the result, Le Pen expressed hope that the momentum would continue to build in response to voters’ growing discontent with the current political and economic state of the country. “This vote shows that the French have a wish for change, that we bring solutions for the questions the French are asking,” she said.
In the past six years, both Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) and Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party have led governing coalitions. Traditionally, the UMP party wins votes from the self-employed, farmers, and retirees. Government workers, young people, and urbanites favor the Socialists. The swing voters, blue-collar workers, and low-level employees are the National Front constituency, though their base has been expanding. Young people and female voters support the party in greater numbers than before. As President Hollande’s approval rating continues to drop, Le Pen’s message to the public has been clear: Try us.
The National Front is primarily a nationalist movement, favoring secularism and protectionism while opposing immigration and France’s involvement in the European Union. In light of the recent economic downturn and debt crisis in Europe, it is most likely that Le Pen’s Eurosceptic policies have struck a chord with French voters. When asked if she intended to pull France off the euro, she responded: "Yes, because the euro blocks all economic decisions. France is not a country that can accept tutelage from Brussels."
Her withdrawal plan rests on the argument that the Eurozone’s trade imbalances between the more prosperous nations, such as Britain, France, and Germany, and the less fiscally stable countries, such as Greece and Portugal, have become unsolvable. Le Pen believes that attempts to reverse this by deflation and wage cuts would result in mass unemployment and significant damage to France’s industrial core.
Le Pen’s surge in popularity may be part of a greater anti-EU movement. Like-minded parties such as the Northern League in Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and the United Kingdom Independence Party have also been gaining influence. Recognizing this opportunity, Le Pen and Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands are in talks to form a Eurosceptic alliance. Should Le Pen and Wilders perform as well as the polls have suggested, the alliance should reach the 25 members necessary to form an official group in the European Parliament. Such an alliance would bring important advantages such as financial subsidies, additional speaking time, and guaranteed seats on committees.
Though it is yet to be determined whether the victory in Brignoles will serve as a bellwether or an anomaly, Le Pen’s greater strategy going forward remains clear. On a national level, the National Front will set itself up as the party of the people, seeking to bring accountability and nationalism back to the populace. On a supranational level, she will continue her efforts to form a new pan-European Eurosceptic alliance.
Whether either will come to fruition remains to be seen, but Marine Le Pen and the National Front show no signs of slowing down any time soon.
The image featured in this article was taken by Rémi Noyon. The original image can be found here.