The Hard Right Goes Soft

PARIS – The central paradox of French politics was confirmed once again on March 27. In a nationwide vote to select local authorities (the so called Conseiller Général), the far-right National Front gained 11% of the votes cast, but secured only 0.1% of the seats.

This discrepancy between the National Front’s popular strength and its actual representation has been a permanent feature of French politics since Jean-Marie Le Pen established the party 40 years ago. But Le Pen was replaced in January by his no less charismatic daughter, Marine. And, with that change, the fate of the Front may be changing, too.

The Front’s scant number of elected officials reflects the strategy pursued by its two main adversaries, the Socialist Party and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, formerly the Gaullist party), which have essentially shared all elected posts at the national and local level since the 1980’s. In order to preserve their shared domination, they have more or less agreed to a “Republican Front” strategy aimed at excluding the National Front in the second round of all elections.

Thus, in a direct run-off between a Front candidate and a Socialist or UMP candidate, the Socialists and the UMP usually vote for each other. The most striking demonstration of this “Republican” alliance was the 2002 Presidential election, when, with Socialist support, Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist incumbent, received 85% of the popular vote in the run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen.