'The Eurosceptic Surge and how to respond to it', a new policy brief by Mark Leonard and José Ignacio Torreblanca, is available to read online or in e-book format.
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A deeply unpopular centre-left government, a fractious centre-right opposition, a rising far-right party led by a canny politician popular far beyond the ranks of the party faithful - France, with Germany one of the pivotal power in EU politics, is prey to a growing economic and political malaise that could soon send shockwaves through European politics. The second round of the town hall elections this Sunday look confirmed that the National Front led by Marine Le Pen benefits like no other party from many French voters' disillusionment with national and European politics. In the first round of voting on 23 March, the Front National scored a number of resounding mayoral race victories, boosted the number of elected officials and, as importantly, positioned itself as kingmaker in numerous races between the centre-left socialist party and the centre-right UMP.
There are no reasons to doubt today that the Front National will confirm the expansion of its electoral base when France goes to vote in the upcoming European elections on 25 May. The socialist party leadership has politically resigned itself to another rout, even as panic spreads through the ranks of officials for whom politics are also a source of livelihood. The race is on between the centre-right UMP and the Front National as to which win the sought-after position of best placed party in terms of number of MEPs or popular votes. Next to crime and migration The Front National has put Europe at the heart of its bid to redefine and conquer the populist heartland of French politics, portraying the EU as the door-opener to a harsh economic globalisation savaging the French economy and way of life. The Front National wants to pull France out of the euro - a policy stance incidentally rejected by a majority of the electorate - and rejects the European Union as it exists today, calling instead for a Union of European nations stretching from Brest to Vladivostok. It attacks the two leading government parties - the ruling Parti Socialiste and the opposition UMP - for forming a de-facto policy cartel over Europe and other issues , offering voters no real choice and leaving the FN as the only true opposition.
Her attacks on the alleged mainstream consensus should not obscure the fact that Marine Le Pen has successfully engineered a radical image overhaul to move the party deeper into the mainstream and therefore closer to power. The Front National today is a political Medusa with a bland face, its remaining neofascist and para-nazi tentacles firmly tucked away under a veil of normality proclaiming robust common sense as the party's new ideology. The daughter of party founder Jean Marie Le Pen, a political brawler and active, intellectually sharp octogenarian who is set to get re-elected into the European Parliament, has sandpapered off the anti-Semitic edge of her father's policy discourse. She comes across as essentially credible in her rejection of anti-Semitism and outright racism. Her occasionally vicious attacks on devout Muslims in particular and immigrants in general resonate in a country that guillotined its Most Christian Monarch in 1793 and fiercely persecuted its conservative catholic priests to establish a republic where anticlericalism and mistrust against militant monotheism remains an important ideological reference point for much of the progressive left.
Europe is the tool; the real prize for Marine Le Pen will be the forthcoming presidential election in 2017 where the daughter will try to emulate her father's 2002 success by making it into the second and decisive round. Were that to happen, Marine Le Pen would likely stand an excellent chance to achieve a far better result than her father's fifth of the vote when he faced Jacques Chirac. Of all the major EU democracies, France today seems the one most vulnerable to a far right success that could shake its archaically monarchic Fifth Republic to the core and transform the terms of European politics.
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