Europe counts in French elections

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The biggest smile, the night of the first round of the French presidential elections, belonged to Marine Le Pen, candidate of the extreme right Front National (FN) who obtained 17.9 per cent of the vote, a record for the party formerly led by her father.

Le Pen wants her party to become the first choice of the conservative, right-wing electorate previously loyal to parties identifying themselves with General de Gaulle, the architect of the Fifth Republic. The weak showing of outgoing President Nicholas Sarkozy, who obtained only 27.18 percent of the vote, encourages her to think she, and her anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, faux populist supporters can replace the remnants of the Gaullist movement as the main adversary of the Socialist Party, whose candidate François Hollande led first round voting, obtaining 28.63 percent.

Since she wants her FN to replace the Gaullists, Marine Le Pen will not call on Front National sympathizers to vote for Sarkozy in the May 6 second round run-off election (against François Hollande). Le Pan prefers to see her right-wing competitors in disarray, and out of office, believing the deepening economic and financial crisis of the Eurozone will eventually bring traditional Gaullist French nationalists to embrace her patriotic jingoism.

Marine Le Pen would like to see the FN build on its presidential election showing in the all-important legislative elections for the French National Assembly this coming June.

In the second round of presidential voting May 6, Sarkozy needs well over 80 per cent of the Front National vote, and at least 60 per cent of the 9.13 per cent that voted for the Centrist MoDem party leader François Bayrou to defeat François Hollande.

The Socialist candidate can count on support from the three small left parties that together garnered 3.5 per cent. As well, Front de Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélanchon has called on his supporters (11.11 per cent) to vote against Sarkozy.

Overall, in the first round, the left vote totaled 43.24 per cent, while the right vote (FN plus Sarkozy) totaled 45.7 per cent. The Green leader Eva Joly has asked her voters (2.5 per cent) to vote Socialist, leaving Holland and Sarkozy in a virtual tie going into the second round.

In order to win, François Hollande will need support from the centrist supporters of François Bayrou (9.13 per cent). The centre party voters are expected to split fairly evenly. Its leader will indicate his personal choice without asking his supporters to follow his lead.

So the outcome of the election hinges on enough right-wing anti-Sarkozy voters in the FN voting socialist, or staying home, and driving down the total of the right vote, to allow the Socialist candidate to win.

From the beginning of the campaign, polls suggest Hollande will win the head-to-head contest with Sarkozy. The day after the election, speaking in Brittany, the Socialist leader suggested the greatest risk facing France was five more years of rule by the incumbent President.

The reality is that France, which for decades has been split between left and right, with Presidential elections being decided 51 per cent to 49 per cent on that basis, now is also splitting over attitudes towards Europe.

Le Pen supporters, an integral part of the right-wing camp, cannot be counted on to vote for the outgoing President, simply because he represents the right, and Hollande the left. It is more likely some FN voters prefer not to support Sarkozy because he has been continuously photographed next to his ally Chancellor Merkel of Germany, while France suffers from unemployment, and its associated social distress the FN blame on French membership in the Eurozone.

Blaming the European Union and the Eurozone for economic and social problems in France is not limited to the FN. In the 2005 unsuccessful referendum to ratify a proposed European Constitution, the Socialist party split over supporting what appeared to left Socialists -- like Jean-Luc Mélanchon -- to be a neo-liberal project for Europe.

Mélanchon left the Socialist Party after the European referendum failed, and created the Front de Gauche. He proved to be the surprise of the Presidential campaign, drawing crowds of 120,000 in Paris, and Marseilles. Mélanchon built his campaign as an appeal to the French socialist tradition as shown in this striking video but his results were disappointing to left supporters who wanted him to finish ahead of Le Pen.

Hollande has called for reforms to Europe, distancing himself from the way Merkel and Sarkozy conducted Eurozone crisis policy. The traditional Gaullist alliance with Germany is proving a liability to the outgoing President, and his party.

Whatever the outcome May 6, re-thinking the Eurozone is going to be on the French political agenda of both the left and the right, largely because votes for Le Pen and attention to Mélanchon have made it an issue.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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