Success of Marine Le Pen's Front National in French elections raises concern across Europe
Socialist François Hollande and President Nicolas Sarkozy will face-off in the second round of the presidential election in two week’s time, but attention on Monday was focused on the far-right Front National party of Marine Le Pen.
She attracted one in five votes in Sunday’s first round, giving her anti-immigrant, anti-European party its highest-ever score (18 per cent) in a presidential election and causing alarm bells to ring throughout Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the results as “alarming” but said she expected “it will be ironed out in the second round," adding that she continued to support French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the election.
Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal said the French election result was "extremely worrisome" and followed the rise of the far-right across Europe, including in his own country and Finland.
Extreme right parties have made great strides in several EU nations, from Sweden to Finland and the Netherlands, while others remain strong in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Hungary.
Despite the result, Le Pen will not go through to the second round, but it puts her party in its strongest position yet with question marks hanging over who her supporters will vote for on 6 May. She says she will announce her opinion on 1 May a week before the run-off.
"The battle of France has just begun ... we have exploded the monopoly of the two parties” a jubilant Le Pen told supporters after the first round vote. "Nothing will be as it was before ... the people of France have invited themselves to the table of the elite.”
Le Pen, a seasoned politician before she took over from her father as party chief last year, is credited with offering a softer image of the party.
The twice-divorced, 43-year-old lawyer, was elected to local and regional council posts and in 2004 to the European Parliament. She is seen as one of a new age of far-right leaders across Europe who want to distance themselves from the fascist stigma of their predecessors.
According to Le Monde newspaper, Le Pen appeals to a portion of the 40 per cent of the electorate in France who see themselves as belonging to neither the right nor the left of the political spectrum. These voters face two choices: abstention or voting for the FN which is no longer seen as a ‘protest’ vote.
Opinion polls show the party is most popular among ordinary workers living in rural France or the regions around the capital who feel Le Pen addresses the issues of greatest concern to them – immigration, law and order and buying power.
Following Sunday’s first round, the remaining two presidential candidates lost no time in making a bid for the FN vote in the second round.
Hollande said the vote for Le Pen, who wants to pull the country out of the euro and rails against globalisation and the 'Islamisation' of France, reflected anger in the country and said he would listen to her supporters.
Sarkozy said those who backed the FN deserved an answer to their concerns.
"These anxieties, this suffering, I know them, I understand them," he said on Sunday. "They are about respecting our borders, the determined fight against job relocation, controlling immigration, putting value on work, on security."
The first opinion poll after the first round said that Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 54 per cent to 46 in the second round.