Marine Le Pen’s record-breaking score for her party on Sunday was a major step in her plan to destroy the ruling UMP and become the main right wing voice of opposition in France, according to the country’s top expert on the far-right National Front (FN).
With just under 18% of the vote, it is the FN’s biggest ever result in the first round of a presidential election. It beats the 16% that saw her father Jean-Marie Le Pen go through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.
“It is an undeniable personal victory for her and it legitimises her place at the centre of the party she inherited from her father,” Sylvain Crépon, senior researcher and FN specialist at the Paris Nanterre University told FRANCE 24.
“It also marks a significant step away from the party ‘old guard’ and is an important stage in her strategy to remove a negative stigma from the party.”
Potential for parliamentary representation
Above all, Le Pen’s strategy is to cause a massive upset to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right UMP party and to make a good showing in June’s parliamentary elections.
France does not use proportional representation in legislative elections, so even if Le Pen gets a similar turnout in June, the FN is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats, said Crépon.
But these seats would give Le Pen and her party a platform in the National Assembly (the FN currently has no members of parliament), and would mark an important point in the resurgence of a party that in the mid-80s had some 35 parliamentary seats.
“Le Pen is angling for the FN to become central to the birth of a new right wing in France and to become the number one party of opposition against the Socialists.
“She wants to make the French right implode so that she can rebuild it around the ideas and policies of her own party.”
A call to abstain in second round
Le Pen’s biggest card for undermining Sarkozy will be to call on her voters to abstain in the May 6 second round of the presidential vote.
While some 50% of her supporters are likely to cast their ballots for Sarkozy, according to Crépon, a forthright appeal to FN loyalists to boycott the vote and hand Hollande a landslide victory would put the UMP in a perilous position.
But there is no clear indication as to how many of her supporters would follow her call, expected on May 1, the day the FN traditionally marks remembrance of medieval French heroine Joan of Arc and when the party’s policies and strategy are outlined by its leader.
“Despite her high score in the first round, I believe that a significant proportion of Le Pen’s success has been the result of a protest vote against the other parties,” said Crépon.
“The result of the first round can be seen as the FN’s apex, and the party can’t do any better than this,” he said.
Crépon explained that besides her traditional supporters, many of those who voted for her on Sunday did so in protest at the mainstream parties and because she talked about issues that concerned them, including poverty, insecurity and immigration.
“But still these people do not see the FN as a party that is capable of governing the country,” Crépon said.
Sarkozy still has much to gain from courting support from FN voters over the next fortnight – and if he wins, he will fatally undermine Le Pen’s strategy to conquer the French right.
“But such a scenario will only be possible if Sarkozy is defeated in the second round. If he wins, Sarkozy will be able to boast that he won the election without the support of the FN and he will have broken Le Pen’s momentum.”