Five days before French voters pick their new president, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen announced she would cast a blank ballot in the second round poll of the election. Faced with a choice between conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party challenger François Hollande, the National Front (FN) leader said the two candidates were the same.
Le Pen came in third in the first round of the elections on April 22, getting 17.9% of votes. Recovering a part of her electorate in the May 6 runoff is important for the two remaining candidates, but especially for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who opinion polls say will likely fail to secure a second mandate this spring.
Speaking to a crowd of around four thousand followers outside Paris’ Opera Garnier on Tuesday, Le Pen said each person should vote with his or her own conscience, but that neither Sarkozy nor Hollande could count on her endorsement.
"I shall grant neither my trust, nor a mandate to those two candidates. On Sunday I will vote blank, and in June navy blue,” Le Pen said in reference to upcoming parliamentary elections in which she hopes to lead a coalition of FN members and sympathisers on the far right.
"On May 6, it is not a president who will be elected, but merely another employee of the European Central Bank, a subordinate of the financial system in Brussels,” Le Pen mockingly declared in an hour-long speech in which she bashed France’s two main political parties and extolled her score in the first round.
Celebrating Joan of Arc
The FN organises a May 1 march every year in honour of Saint Joan of Arc, the 15th century Catholic saint and martyr who fought against the English army.
Before gathering outside the Paris Opera, the FN’s founder and long-time figurehead, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led a festive march in central Paris and momentarily stopped to lay a wreath at the foot of the statue of the French medieval heroine.
Nevertheless, the current presidential election eclipsed the traditional protocol, and participants were eager to find out what the far right candidate would say about the second round vote. Le Pen’s “blank vote” declaration was greeted with enthusiasm by the crowd, with many loudly repeating that they would do the same thing next Sunday.
The National Front gathering was one of three competing May 1 rallies in the French capital on Tuesday. Union workers and left-wingers joined the traditional Labour Day march that would culminate in the iconic Bastille square, while Sarkozy supporters took part in a counter-Labour Day gathering near the Eiffel tower.
Supporters hesitate over runoff
Romain, a 19-year-old student from northern Aisne department, said he had “kept” a ballot with Marine Le Pen’s name from the first round and would place it in a voting box on May 6. “There is no fundamental difference between Sarkozy and Hollande. They have the same economic program,” declared the teen, who was concealing a Londsdale jacket that is popular among some European neo-Nazis.
“I used to vote on the Left but now find that 90% of my ideas correspond to those of Marine Le Pen,” said Michel, a retired maths teacher who also said he would cast a blank vote. “Only Marine Le Pen can bring about real change.”
A 53-year-old man who asked to be identified as Mr. Gore, and was one of the very few black people at Le Pen’s rally, said he had planned to vote for Hollande as a way to sanction Sarkozy, but had changed his mind after the speech. “My dream is to see [Sarkozy’s] UMP party lose and disintegrate before the legislative elections. But if Marine says to vote blank, I will vote blank,” he said.
However, other FN sympathisers said they were still hesitating to decide who they would vote for on May 6. Many said they were leaning toward Nicolas Sarkozy. “I voted for Sarkozy in the second round of 2007. I still don’t know if I will vote for him again or cast a blank vote,” said Francoise, a 65-year-old retired civil servant from the Paris suburbs.
Jean-Louis, a small business owner from Lille who came to the FN rally with his 16-year-old son, said he would not hesitate to pick Sarkozy in the runoff. “It’s not quite true to say [Hollande and Sarkozy] are exactly the same. I think Sarkozy would have pushed his reform agenda further if he had not been sidelined by the financial crisis,” the 56-year-old said.