17.9% of the vote, the party’s highest ever share, while Nicolas Sarkozy became the first incumbent President in 50 years to lose the first round vote. Neither result should have come as much of a surprise. Surveys have consistently ranked Le Pen in third position since January, and her poll ratings have reached the dizzy heights of 21% several times since. Meanwhile, Sarkozy performed better than polls predicted. The last IPSOS survey published Friday gave Hollande a 3.5% lead in the first round, which eventually narrowed to just over 1% on Sunday.
Le Pen’s share of the vote is shocking when considered in conjunction with the support expressed for other minority or extremist candidates. In total, just under a third of voters picked one of the six candidates who proposed either an exit from the euro (Le Pen), France’s withdrawal from the Lisbon treaty (Jean-Luc Melenchon) or the introduction of a 100% tax rate on incomes above €360 500 (Nathalie Arthaud, Melenchon). These extremist, protectionist or hard-left manifestos offered a clear rejection of current European German-inspired programmes of austerity. The pressing need to reduce France’s crippling public debt was either ignored, or addressed by flippant policies such as a eurozone exit (Le Pen), a refusal to contribute to the EU budget (Le Pen), or punitive politicised taxes on the finance industry (Melenchon, Arthaud and Poutou).
This support for extremist candidates with little sense of reality does not appear to form part of a protest vote. An Ipsos exit poll reveals that 64% of Le Pen voters picked her because they believed that her policies addressed their concerns, much higher than the equivalent level for frontrunner Hollande.
Why does this matter?
Angela Merkel’s spokesman commented yesterday that Le Pen’s “high score is preoccupying” but that fears of a rise of far-right fervour would be checked by a second round contested by two mainstream candidates, both committed to balanced budgets and a strong relationship with Germany.
Yet Merkel’s good faith may be ill-founded. For Sarkozy to win the second round (he currently lags 8 percentage points behind Hollande in polls) he must be able to court the FN electorate. Yesterday, the incumbent insisted he was ready to take on the challenge, stating that “the Front National voters ought to be respected”, and stressed, “I’d like to tell them: I heard you”.
This is bad news for Merkel. Sarkozy’s 2012 flirtation with the hard right has pushed him to endorse a series of proposals which contravene the German vision for Europe and threaten the Paris-Berlin alliance. These include a Buy European Act, an insistence on renegotiation of the ECB’s role and a re-evaluation of the Schengen treaty. Merkel has agreed to introduce a mild reform to the Schengen area, but she has made clear she will not yield on any economic policies or institutions.Over the next two weeks, Sarkozy has promised to introduce further manifesto pledges, which are likely to be geared towards a far-right electorate. This is likely to jeopardise his relationship with Merkel.
If Hollande is elected, Merkel will have to work with the unknown. Hollande has expressed his commitment to several pet projects, including the introduction of a growth clause in the fiscal treaty, the creation of Eurobonds, direct ECB loans to embattled governments, and a budget which relies on unrealistic 3% French growth predictions, but it is unclear how willing he is to negotiate on the implementation of these policies. In the last month, for instance, he has wavered in his commitment to the growth clause, alternating between a largely cosmetic addendum, and a full re-write.
An Hollande victory in the second round would also have serious repercussions in the legislative elections in June. Sarkozy has vowed to permanently retire from politics if he fails to renew his mandate on May 6th. Lacking a clear heir, the UMP is unlikely to be able to reorganise itself and perform convincingly by June. This is exactly what Marine Le Pen seeks. Yesterday, she made clear that she hoped to use her result to launch herself as a major figure in French opposition politics. The FN currently lacks a seat in the Assemblee Nationale, but 2012 could prove a turning point. If so, Merkel would find it considerably more difficult to enforce the ratification of the fiscal treaty, due to pass through French parliament post-election.
The French election is likely to dent the Berlin-Paris relationship, regardless of the result. France’s shaky economy and volatile -at times populist- politics make it an unreliable partner in European policy-making. Other states, notably the UK, which shares Germany’s commitment to fiscal restraint and a balanced budget, should/could seek to use this opportunity to forge a new power relationship with Germany. It may well be the UK’s chance to assert itself on the European stage.