Since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, in 1958, the French have voted nine times to elect their president. Each time, they have flocked to the polling stations. The lowest turnout was in 2002, with 71 percent participation, when extreme-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the nation by making it to the second round, before losing to Jacques Chirac in the runoff. The turnout in other European countries pales by comparison; in recent national elections it has ranged from 47 percent (Switzerland) to 65 percent (Britain) to 71 percent (Germany).
This past Sunday, 80.4 percent of Frenchvoters cast their ballots. Pollsters had frightened many on the center and left who remembered 2002, when the record abstention seemed partly responsible for Le Pen’s success. Despite the heavy turnout this year, his daughter Marine, leader of the National Front since December 2010, reached a record level with 17.9 percent of the vote—6.4 million, compared with 4.4 million for Jean-Marie a decade ago. While Marine was third behind Socialist leader François Hollande (28.6 percent), who as predicted edged out right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy (27.1), her finish was no small achievement for the far right, and a scary prospect for French democracy.
Le Pen’s exploit is, however, not all that surprising. When I met her a few months ago, she was on a PR campaign to “take the devil out” of the National Front, as the media have put it (dédiabolisation), rejecting for instance the “extreme right” epithet. Born in 1968, the twice-divorced single mother said she was in favor of abortion and gay marriage. Her economic program included the renationalization of postal services, state-funded initiatives such as a five-year reindustrialization plan and infrastructure improvements, as well as more spending to improve public services. She also appeals to young male rural voters with little education who feel despised by the Parisian elites and left out by globalization.
This year’s election proved to be a strange one: aggressive and digressive at the same time. Important issues such as the state of the economy, the euro crisis, unemployment, education and health were simply ignored by Sarkozy, who was too busy attacking his Socialist rival on frivolous details such as Hollande’s alleged lack of experience at the government level (a weak argument, since Hollande, a lawyer by training, has been an adviser to former president François Mitterrand, an MP for fifteen years, a mayor and a president of one of France’s twenty-two regions). Such bullying tactics clearly didn’t pay off, and Hollande may be reaping the benefit of refusing to engage in personal attacks. “I’m not interested in playground scuffle,” he said. French voters seem grateful.
Unfortunately, the campaign was polluted with absurd controversies, such as the one about halal meat. Marine Le Pen declared that 90 percent of meat consumed by Parisians was halal and that people shockingly didn’t know about it. Sarkozy followed suit, while the rest of the country just watched, incredulous. One poll indicated that an overwhelming majority of the public couldn’t care less about eating halal unknowingly. The matter did, however, monopolize the airwaves and editorials for two full weeks.
Then French-born Salafi jihadist Mohamed Merah struck in southwestern France, killing three paratroopers, three Jewish children and one rabbi before dying in a police siege of his Toulouse apartment. Marine Le Pen, who has always talked about the “enemy within,” declared that French-born citizens of second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa were being brainwashed by foreign radical imams. After the attack Sarkozy supervised roundups in extremist Islamist circles, and security was suddenly back on the table. However, polls suggested that it was a priority for only 8 percent of the electorate. What the French wanted to hear about was still the economy, education and health.