Marine Le Pen and the youth vote

With 10 days to go until the French election, and with presumably more pressing topics to discuss, the campaign’s narrative has turned once again to Front national candidate Marine Le Pen — and her surprisingly strong support among the youngest voters.

According to a poll published in Le Monde earlier this week, Le Pen wins 26% of the 18-to-24 vote, to just 25% for Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande, 17% for incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and 16% for Front de gauche candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.  An IFOP poll earlier this week showed her polling second among the 18-to-22 vote.

This should not be a surprise – with unemployment running high in France amid near-recession levels of GDP stagnation and in the middle of a Europe-wide sovereign debt crisis (and currency crisis), it is perhaps understandable that job anxiety among the young, for whom unemployment runs highest, is fueling her support. 

Her anti-immigration rhetoric has been sanitized to the point where her argument is essentially economic and employment protectionism, less the nastier xenophobia of her father’s Front national.  She has no particular problem with LGBT rights and she has not emphasized religion in the same way as her father.  As an outsider, she is not tied to the difficulties and compromises that come with being a player in the European arena, which also undoubtedly plays a role in her success.

These polls somewhat remind me of the exit polls in the United States that showed U.S. representative and avowed libertarian Ron Paul leading among 18-to-29 voters in the Republican primaries of 2012 — as in the United States, it is hard to know whether to strike the anomaly to youthful rebellion or some deeper ideological turn among the right’s youngest generation.

But by all means: give Marine credit for her success.

She’s managed to take what was once a shamefully anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and otherwise parochial party, headed by a grumpy old toad, and bring it within the mainstream of French politics.  Marine has clearly mastered the art of 21st century political imagery in ways her father could have never fathomed.  Indeed, at this point, the Front national probably has a stronger brand in France than Sarkozy’s own party — can you even name it?*  Even in a country like France where party identification is relatively weak, the party of center-right has been rechristened about once every decade in the Fifth Republic. 

She’s held steady in double digits throughout the 2012 campaign and remains the leading candidate to finish third in the first round vote on April 22, notwithstanding the surge of leftist radical Mélenchon, and notwithstanding Sarkozy’s own turn to the right in the past two months, although she no longer appears within striking distance of Sarkozy, as feared as recently as earlier this year.

But give Sarkozy credit too: he’s managed a thoroughgoing imitation of the Front national throughout his career — back in 2005, when he was minister of the interior, recall the firestorm that ensued when he referred to the inhabitants of some of France’s poorest and most immigrant-heavy banlieue as racaille, which roughly translates to “scum.”  Sarkozy won the 2007 election, in part, by stealing the thunder of Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and he’s been trying to get as close to Marine as possible on hot-button issues in this election, ranging from the Schengen zone for free movement within the European Union to immigration quotas. 

For Sarkozy’s efforts, he has shifted the window of respectable opinion further to the right as well on the immigration issue.

So when you think about the future of the French right, these polls may show that the Front national has much more room to grow than previously assumed.  If Sarkozy loses his reelection bid, it is not unthinkable (but still unlikely) that Marine could emerge as the 2017 favorite of the right — a far cry from the 2002 presidential election, when her father’s unlikely second-round candidacy was shunned by over four-fifths of the French electorate. 

In any event, it is hard to imagine any other candidate deploying the political wiliness that Sarkozy has in the past decade in blunting Marine’s appeal (François Fillon!?).  No matter what, it’s a safe bet that Marine will be a fixture on French politics for some time.

* Union pour un mouvement populaire.

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