French Presidential Elections:

What happened?
In last week’s first round of the French presidential elections, with 16.9% of the votes, Jean-Marie Le Pen (extreme right candidate) placed second to conservative President Jacques Chirac (19.9%), beating out Social Democrat Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (16.2%). As only the first two candidates of the first round qualify for the second round, only Le Pen and Chirac will be in the two-man May 5 runoff. Against all opinion Poll forecasts, Jospin is out of the race and has announced that he will leave political life.

As this article goes to press the result of the run-off is not yet known, but “for the sake of democracy,” almost all political parties and religious organizations (which traditionally don’t express any political views in France) have called for a vote in favor of Chirac in order to defeat Le Pen and preserve the “values of the Republic.” Every day since these results came in, massive rallies have taken place gathering up to two million people, demonstrating their opposition to Le Pen’s ideas.

Why is it such a political trauma in France?
First of all because the success of the Le Pen candidacy legitimizes his dangerous nationalistic and xenophobic ideas: Le Pen is an amazing public speaker and political demon. He has built the extreme right in France by playing on fears: fear of unemployment, fear of a multicultural society, fear of crime. Over the last 20 years, Le Pen has put the blame for all social and economic issues either onto the population of foreign origin in France (mostly North Africans) advocating proposals such as “let’s send them all back home.” Blaming Europe and globalization has recently been his favorite theme. Taking France out of the EU and raising tariffs is his first priority.

Despite the economic nonsense and immorality of his proposals, his power of seduction combined with unemployment and rising crime in France has attracted the votes of a number of those who bear the consequences of these social and economic issues in France. In a populist rhetoric, Le Pen also presents himself as the “clean man” against the “corrupted political establishment.” As such he also gathers voters rejecting the current system. Very smartly in the last year, Le Pen has softened his speeches to become more “acceptable” though his extreme political agenda has not changed.

Le Pen’s presence in the second round has a second negative consequence: it will weaken the legitimacy of President Chirac’s re-election. The predictable large majority in favor of Chirac in the runoff will effectively be more of a vote against Le Pen’s xenophobia than in favor of Chirac’s own agenda. Hence Chirac will have a reduced legitimacy to carry forward his own political agenda, unless he can strengthen his legitimacy through a strong victory in the coming June parliamentary election.

How did it happen?
First of all, the record high number of candidates (16!) has fragmented the political base of the main candidates and dispersed votes. Jospin, especially, lost many voters to small left candidates. Misled by the opinion polls, many voters misjudged the consequences of their voting for a “small” candidate onto the second round. Hence their surprise.
Secondly, a few dramatic violent events in the French news over the last several weeks excessively focused the presidential campaign on crime issues, a traditional theme for Le Pen to gather votes.

A third cause is the lack of clearly communicated and differentiated projects between Chirac and Jospin, which demotivated voters: “They are the same, we don’t have a real choice anyhow.” This caused an all-time high abstention rate (28% of the voters did not vote).
But the primary cause seems to be the high percentage of “protest votes” cast for the extreme (left and right), not so much to express agreement with these extreme ideologies, but primarily to protest against the lack of ambitious agenda from the two mainstream candidates (Chirac / Jospin) and the mainstream political class in general. In that sense, this election is a wake-up call for the French political class.

So what is next?
The parliamentary elections will take place in June. The Conservatives will try to secure a strong majority that would fully legitimize President Chirac. They will also argue that after 5 years of “cohabitation” (President and Prime Minister from different sides), France should avoid this awkward regime under which reforms are more difficult to pass. They will also argue that they should be given such a clear majority that they don’t have to compromise with extreme right deputies to pass laws. The left (primarily lead by the Social Democrats) will try to recover after Jospin’s defeat. But this will be difficult without a leader, as Jospin stepped down.

In the first round of the presidential elections, France has had a frightening look at itself in the mirror. In the May 5 second round and in the June parliamentary elections, French will have a second chance to seriously state what they stand for. In the coming months and years, their political leaders will have the responsibility to find new ways to address the fears and issues that caused 30% of the French electorate to cast a protest vote for the extreme left or right. Le Pen’s success has been a slap in the face to France, and has triggered a national debate about the true meaning and values of politics. This will hopefully pave the way for a future without extreme ideologies.