French nationalist leader’s Presidential challenge

Marine Le Pen is likely to poll around 15% in this year's French presidential election, but is very unlikely to qualify for the second round run-off

Marine Le Pen is likely to poll around 15% in this year's French presidential election, but is very unlikely to qualify for the second round run-off

Since the mid-1980s the French Front National (National Front) has been the most successful nationalist party in Europe. The FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the political establishment in 2002 when he finished ahead of the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, and qualified for the second round “run-off” ballot. Le Pen is now 83 years old and has retired from the party leadership, succeeded by his daughter Marine. Can she pull off a similar (or even better) surprise result in 2012?

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Jean-Marie Le Pen contested the French presidency five times and was runner-up in 2002.

French presidential elections are held in two stages. The first ballot on 22nd April involves ten candidates:

  • President Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking re-election after five years in the Elysée Palace.  Of half-Jewish origin, Sarkozy leads the centre-right Gaullist party, although he is the first French president born after the Second World War and to have had no personal connection to the politics of Gen. De Gaulle’s era.
  • Socialist candidate François Hollande is the main challenger and until recently seen as the almost certain winner this year.  During the campaign opinion polls have shown Hollande losing support to the far left.
  • Marine Le Pen of the Front National is likely to finish third, though in the early stages of the campaign there seemed an outside chance that she could overtake Sarkozy and get into a run-off against Hollande.
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a former Socialist government minister who looks set to be the most successful far left candidate since the old Communist Party.  Recent polls show him running neck and neck with Le Pen and challenging for third place.
  • François Bayrou is a perennial candidate of the centre-right, seen as leading a more moderate form of conservatism.  He served as education minister in conservative governments during the 1990s, and has twice been a presidential candidate previously, finishing third with 18.6% in 2007.
  • Eva Joly – the Green presidential candidate this year – is a lawyer noted for anti-corruption investigations.  The strength of the far left means that the Greens are a lot weaker in France than in Germany, and Joly will struggle to gain more than 2%.
  • Nicolas Dupont-Aignan leads the closest present French equivalent to UKIP and is a former member of Sarkozy’s party.  His campaign has made little impact and he is likely to gain only about 1%.
  • There are two minor candidates of the far left, the Trotskyist Nathalie Arthaud and the semi-Trotskyist Philippe Poutou, but they have been overshadowed this year by the more mainstream far left candidature of Mélenchon.  While the latter might poll as high as 15% and could even overtake Le Pen, Arthaud and Poutou will probably get a combined vote of no more than 2%.
  • Jacques Cheminade is the most unusual of the ten candidates.  He is a radical anti-war and anti-globalisation activist, and leads a movement linked to the 89 year old American Lyndon LaRouche.  Cheminade – a former diplomat – was previously a presidential candidate in 1995, but is unlikely to get more than 0.5%.
  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the most serious far left French presidential candidate for a generation, and could poll around 15%, possibly overtaking Le Pen.

    Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the most serious far left French presidential candidate for a generation, and could poll around 15%, possibly overtaking Le Pen.

    Marine Le Pen had a very promising start to her campaign, but an over-emphasis on the supposed threat from radical Islam has blunted the edge of her radical challenge to Sarkozy.  The best guess now is that she will poll somewhere between her father’s 10.4% last time and his most successful first round result of 16.9% in 2002.  It now looks very unlikely indeed that she can qualify for the second round, which is almost certain to be between Sarkozy and Hollande and to end in a Socialist victory for the first time since the days of President Mitterand (1981-95), who until now is the only Socialist to have served as President in the history of the French Fifth Republic.

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