Mixed messages in France

By Simon Barrow
April 23, 2007

Early impressions of the result in the first round of the French general election suggest a mixed message about the nti-migrant right in Europe.

On the one hand, say commentators, "only" 11 per cent vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. But given the high turn out, that actually means that nearly one in ten of the adult French population was willing to vote for what many regard as a resprayed fascist party. This suggests few grounds for complacency.

Moreover, it is recognised that first round victor Nicholas Sarkozy (30 per cent) achieved at least some of his popularity by stealing the clothes of the FN on a number of crucial issues - not least the wave of anti-immigrant feeling, which populist politicians have always sought to exploit.

Logic says that he will have to move back to the centre to defeat Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, given that moderate third party man Francois Bayrou (18 per cent) may push his voters against Sarkosy - but is unlikely to endorse his opponent.

An eventual victory for Sarkozy would be seen as a vindication for a harder line right-wing candidate than has ever held power in France before, and one that will give solace to those in Europe who prefer a fortress mentality on migration.

There is another interesting twist to this, and it concerns the political process.

The 85 per cent turnout at the election is being seen as a massive testament to the health of democracy in France. This is because, in spite of its problems, there is a real choice to be made - and politics is still a medium that can deliver change, people believe.

But if Sarkozy wins and succeeds in marketising areas of French life which have been resistant to the neo-liberal ideology, it may be that this trend will not be sustainable.

In many Western democracies voter turnout falls as people realise that the serious decisions are taken by corporate interests and the economic big players. In the case of Sarkozy, turkeys might just find themselves voting for Christmas.

But two weeks is a long time in politics, and it is to be seen whether Royal can cohere a bigger coalition around a coherent alternative vision.

Whichever way it goes, the French political landcsape is likely to shift a gear for good (or ill).

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