This week’s focus on the French Presidential candidates is on the leader of France’s far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. Viewed as one of the more extreme candidates in the field, Le Pen has been keen to adopt a more liberal approach than her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Ms Le Pen came to public notice during the presidential election in May 2002, when her father shocked the country by coming second in the first round with almost 18% of the vote. Since becoming leader of National Front, she has been keen to shake the party’s xenophobic image and move it towards the mainstream of French politics. She has even gone so far as to object to the term “far right”, which she says marginalises a group that regularly attracts about 15% of voters in national elections.
She has championed traditional National Front ideas, such as a tough stance on immigration, opposition to globalisation and support for the death penalty; however, she has also adopted more liberal positions on social issues, notably abortion rights. This has led to her being viewed dispassionately within her own party. Some traditionalists have dismissed her as little more than a pretty face and an unprincipled upstart who owed her prominence to her family connections.
Ms Le Pen has arguably been most damaging to Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. Her attempts to move the National Front to the centre have encroached somewhat on Sarkozy’s territory and she has been keen to have the first word on immigration and nationalist issues.
Some of her more bizarre comments have focussed on trivialities. For example, at a congress of her National Front party in Lille, Le Pen said she had proof that all meat in Paris was halal and that she would lodge legal complaints against distributors for misleading consumers. Although this type of comment does not gain huge traction with the electorate it does maintain the spotlight on the immigration issue, which is becoming uncomfortable for Nicolas Sarkozy and his response exemplifies this.
In a TV debate on 7th March Sarkozy claimed that France has too many foreigners and defended his plan to almost halve the number of new migrants if re-elected next month. Politicking on this level is not beneficial for the elections and Le Pen can make Sarkozy look weak on immigration if he continues to discuss these issues on this level in the debates.
Le Pen is not helping her own cause by refusing to provide the five hundred signatures of mayors or local officials supporting the candidacy that are required under French constitutional law. Whether some of these backers are reluctant to reveal their support is unclear; however, it does not help Le Pen in her attempts to alter the image of her far right party.
A survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, has Le Pen in third with 18 percent, trailing Sarkozy, who is in second with 25%; however, she could still gain on Sarkozy if she can keep the immigration debate in the spotlight. She is also popular with farmers with her proposals on various other agricultural reforms gaining traction. The threat from Le Pen and the popularity of Socialist Party’s candidate Francois Hollande, who leads the polls, means that Sarkozy is fighting this election on two fronts. Although Le Pen is unlikely to win outright, she has the potential to harm Sarkozy and continue to woo the centre right in the future.