The Jolt in a Victory on the Right

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 23, 2002

The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front, in the first round of the French presidential election is rightly being called a political earthquake in France. With 17 percent of the vote, Mr. Le Pen eliminated Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and won the right to a second-round runoff with President Jacques Chirac. But the shock waves are being felt well beyond French borders.

European leaders find that some 40 percent of the French voted for candidates deeply hostile to the European Union, including Mr. Le Pen and others on the far right and far left. It is an issue for all of France’s trade partners that half of the votes went to anti-globalization candidates. And Arabs and Jews around the world, divided on so much else, must be equally dismayed by the success of a man who has for decades blamed Arab immigrants for crime and unemployment problems and who once described gas chambers as no more than a “detail” in the history of World War II.

In the United States, Mr. Le Pen’s victory will do little to enhance trust and confidence in France—an ally that has its problems in Washington in the best of times. Already over the past several months the United States has gone through one of its periodic bouts of francophobia, the frustration Americans feel toward France as the European country least ready to salute and follow American instructions. This time, many Americans are distressed by the French tilt toward the Palestinians, which many see as intended to appease France’s Arab population; by France’s unwillingness, apparently for commercial reasons, to support ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein; and, most important, by the outbreak of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence in France.

The anti-French sentiments, particularly strong, and rising, among conservatives and hard-liners in the Bush administration, will only be reinforced by the election result. Beyond the apparent vote against free trade and the support for the extreme right (20 percent of the voters chose either Mr. Le Pen or Bruno Megret, his former ally), there is support for the far left. Three Trotskyites together took more than 11 percent of the vote; the Communist Party candidate, 3 percent; and the Green candidate, 5 percent.

The impression of a France in the hands of extremists or on the verge of a fascist takeover—some French commentators on election night did not hesitate to make allusions to Germany in 1933—needs to be put in perspective. While Mr. Le Pen’s defeat of Mr. Jospin was indeed shocking, the overall election result was not far out of line with those in other recent elections. In the last presidential election, in 1995, for example, Mr. Le Pen won 15 percent in the first round of voting, and in 1988 he took 14 percent.

This election confirmed well-established trends toward the fragmentation of the French political system and the rejection of ruling parties. In this particular case, a combination of political factors, along with the peculiarities of France’s two-round presidential electoral system, produced a result that gives the impression of a much greater shift than has actually taken place. In fact, Mr. Le Pen defeated Mr. Jospin by less than 1 percent.

One critical factor in the rise in support for marginal candidates was the similarities in the platforms of the main candidates, Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin. Ever since former President François Mitterrand’s disastrous left-wing experiment of the early 1980’s, French Socialists have gradually moved to the center and accepted the need for a market economy, European integration and the Atlantic alliance. By the 1990’s, this Socialist pragmatism was so ingrained that Mr. Jospin found himself in a government whose economic platform focused on issues like fiscal austerity, privatization, free trade and lower taxes. To win over centrist voters he even adopted familiar right-wing themes like the need to crack down on crime. The result was that French voters who felt they wanted an alternative to mainstream policies or to longtime leaders had to opt for parties out of the mainstream, and they did so in droves.

Another key issue was the perceived need to fight rising crime, which for the first time in nearly 20 years voters said was a greater concern to them than unemployment. This factor worked strongly against the two leaders who have been in power as the issue of personal security has risen, and it played right into the hands of Mr. Le Pen, who has called for draconian anticrime measures for years.

The most important factor, however, was a voting system that magnified these trends. Reassured by the press and opinion polls that a Jospin-Chirac runoff in the second round was a virtual certainty, nearly 28 percent of French voters, an unprecedented proportion, simply stayed home. Among those who turned out was a disproportionally high number of supporters of one extreme or another, plus many who wrongly saw the first round as an opportunity to send a message of disaffection to their leaders without any real political effect. Presumably, had many of those who voted for other center-left or even more extreme left candidates known that their votes might lead to the demise of Mr. Jospin and the success of Mr. Le Pen, the outcome would have been very different and hardly noticed in the international news.

Yet though the impression of great change is overblown, the French know that their reputation as a solid European and Atlantic ally committed to liberal values and integration in the world economy has been shaken by the electoral result. With Round 2 of the presidential contest set for May 5 and two rounds of legislative elections coming in June, the majority in France will be eager to restore it.