On the evening of Sunday, April 21, France was shaken from months of political stupor by the second-place finish of ultra-right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of France's election, an event that has been described by Le Monde as no less than a "political earthquake." The aftershock has spread throughout Europe, prompting leaders and newspapers alike to express concern and dismay at Le Pen's strong showing (about 17 percent of the vote in a field of 16 candidates). His triumph over Socialist Party Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is the latest in a series of defeats for European Social Democrats, beginning with the rise of the right in Italy and Austria and further evidenced by the recent downfall of center-left governments in Denmark and Portugal. Upcoming elections in Germany and Holland promise a strong showing for the right as well.
Though his final-round face-off with incumbent center-right President Jacques Chirac is certain to end with a Chirac victory, Le Pen has in many ways already won. He has achieved his lifelong goal of entering the political mainstream and forcing the establishment to take him seriously. His 17 percent total belies the fact that he beat both Chirac and Jospin outright in nine of mainland France's 22 regions and scored 27 percent of the vote in the French Riviera city of Nice. Moreover, counting the 2.4 percent showing of his old ally-turned-defector Bruno Mégret, the mandate of the far right is virtually equal to that of Chirac's. This broad swath of support for the far right reveals a growing gulf between those in France's rural provinces and those snobby Parigots from the capital who largely ignored them during the campaign.
Voter disillusionment was rampant from the beginning. Already in January the mood in Paris cafes reflected a "so what" attitude toward the presidential election. Young voters complained that there were no policy differences between Chirac and Jospin, the two major candidates. For nearly everyone in France, except Le Pen himself, it was a foregone conclusion that the president and the prime minister would face each other in the May 5 runoff. Given this pervasive political ennui, it's no surprise that 28 percent of the French electorate chose to stay home on April 21 -- the largest abstention rate since 1958 -- and that so many others cast protest votes for the remaining 14 candidates. All in all, 40 percent of voters cast ballots for parties other than those governing or their coalition partners, revealing a profound lack of faith in the mainstream parties that have governed for the past seven years.
Jospin suffered greatly from Al Gore Syndrome. His lackluster centrist campaign, impersonal demeanor, and disingenuous flip-flop posturing from the center to the far left (when threatened by Trotskyist firebrand Arlette Laguiller) all conspired to destroy his image and credibility. Laguiller and her fellow ultra-left-wing candidates garnered 11 percent of the vote, chipping away at Jospin's numbers. Furthermore, Jospin's former Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement siphoned off another 5 percent with an eccentric nationalist message. The challenge from the far left and Chevènement put a far greater dent in Jospin's candidacy than he ever imagined, a phenomenon that has provoked more than a few comparisons to Ralph Nader's campaign.
The parallels are very real. In an impassioned plea to fellow leftists published in Le Monde three days before the election, Michel Broué and Bernard Murat exhorted their ideological compatriots to vote for Jospin. "Have you gone crazy? Le Pen has caught up with Jospin in some polls," they began. Critiquing Chirac's free-market, pro-business worldview, the authors insisted "Despite his limits, his compromises Jospin's left is also a left of resistance to this new form of barbarism." Their rhetoric sounded eerily similar to that of Democrats in early November 2000, as Nader's numbers ate away at Gore's majority. "The future is not guaranteed The stakes are real today," Broué and Murat wrote. And indeed they were. Le Pen edged out Jospin by a mere 0.76 percent.
As these factors would seem to indicate, like many center-left parties throughout Europe, and like the U.S. Democrats, the French socialists are suffering an identity crisis. "The traditional left did not manage to cast itself as the true left," said David Alcaud, of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. As a result, the socialists are no longer seen as representing the little man and are increasingly perceived as simply another arm of the institutionalized ruling elite. Jospin's support of limited privatization, globalization, and tighter immigration regulations, coupled with a campaign that adopted the right-wing theme of law and order, severely damaged his leftist credentials.
The same can be said of the socialists' coalition partner, the French Communist Party (PCF). In historically red-friendly Seine Saint-Denis north of Paris, PCF candidate Robert Hue garnered 15 percent of the vote in 1995 but received only 5.8 percent on Sunday. His popularity plummeted in other communist strongholds as well. Many of these votes went to more extremist far-left parties who now see the PCF as an establishment party that no longer represents them; some disillusioned workers and unemployed ex-communists defected to Le Pen's National Front. Indeed, many of these voters look to the National Front's "socially left" nationalistic populism as the solution the left has not been able to provide. As Nonna Mayer of the Center for the Study of Political Life in France noted, "[the far right] profits from the failure of traditional left-wing parties."
It didn't hurt that Le Pen went to great pains to rehabilitate his image during this year's campaign. He claimed his reputation as a racist had been "fabricated" to damage him, insisting that he had demonstrated, during 40 years in politics, that he is "not a racist." As Le Monde noted, he forced upon himself "a significant moderation of tone and language." Le Pen even went so far as to plan a meeting with Nelson Mandela during a visit to South Africa, though it was later canceled. September 11 briefly complicated things for Le Pen, forcing him to choose between anti-semitism and anti-Muslim vitriol. The latter was much more fashionable, and the September 11 attacks in many ways validated Le Pen's xenophobic message in the eyes of his voter base. By airbrushing his image and softening his political platform he suddenly became more palatable to a broader cross-section of the electorate that feared Islamic fundamentalism, rising crime, immigration, and their own economic insecurity.
Since the shocking news of Sunday night's vote tally, spontaneous protests have erupted throughout France. Demonstrators, mostly young but some old, have taken to the streets declaring their anger and shame. But those who support Le Pen are no longer ashamed to voice their views, and Chirac's refusal to debate him before the May 5 election will only further fuel his popularity among disaffected French citizens who feel their interests are not represented or taken seriously by the political establishment.
After a rousing presidential address on Sunday night in which Chirac told called upon the nation to defend democracy, nearly all candidates have closed ranks behind the president, urging their supporters to vote against Le Pen. But re-electing Chirac, whom many believe is a scandal-ridden liar and a crook, will provide little consolation to the once-powerful French left, which already finds itself rebuilding from the ashes, trying desperately to put forth a better face for June's legislative elections. Whether it can move beyond Jospin's failed campaign and the fragmentation of Sunday's first round will depend on its ability to differentiate itself from Chirac and return to its traditional roots. At the epicenter of the political crisis is the issue of immigration and integration, and as Le Monde's editors put it: "The far right offers no solutions, or unacceptable ones. It is up to social democracy to reinvent a model of integration, quickly."