Athough French Socialists voted resoundingly (57%) Sunday to give their presidential nomination to Francois Hollande, and the Left appears united behind the former Socialist Party first secretary (chairman), there is no assurance he will go one-on-one against President Nicolas Sarkozy next May.
Following the free-for-all contest next April, the resulting runoff in May could well be one between pro-U.S. incumbent Sarkozy—whom polls show very unpopular because of scandals surrounding his administration and the economic turmoil now gripping Europe—and Marine Le Pen, political heiress of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his National Front movement best known for its hard line on immigration.
Aware that such a nightmare for the Left could come true next year, French Socialists chose the safe and pragmatic Hollande over the far Left. Hollande accepts France’s role in the European community and Sarkozy’s goal of reducing the budget deficit to less than 3% of the gross domestic product by 2013.
Much as he has shed considerable weight through the protein-based Dukan Diet, Hollande has also dropped most of the “class warfare” rhetoric of his younger years. He was quoted in ’07 as saying, “I don’t like rich people.”
Although both the Obama administration and congressional Republicans would clearly prefer the reelection of the incumbent French President, whom detractors dub “Sarko the American” for his pro-U.S. feelings, no one in Washington believes there would be any changes in its good relationship with Paris under a “President Hollande.”
In defeating arch-leftist opponent Martine Aubry, midwife of France’s 35-hour work week and beloved by union bosses, the 57-year-old Hollande was endorsed by all three of the runners-up in the Socialists’ first primary Oct. 9, among them 2007 presidential nominee Segolene Royal, Hollande’s former partner and mother of their four children.
The latest Ipsos poll shows Hollande topping the general election field with 32% of the vote, to 21% for Sarkozy and 16% for Le Pen. But after three successive defeats for president since 1988, few doubt the Left’s ability to fumble a fourth time. Many French Socialists still cringe recalling the 2002 campaign, when a lack of enthusiasm for their nominee resulted in a low turnout and a one-two showing by then-President Jacques Chirac and Jean Marie Le Pen. The elder LePen’s calls for repatriating immigrants to the countries of their birth, pulling France out of the European Union (EU), and a string of anti-Semitic statements he made (including calling the Holocaust a “detail of history”) so alarmed the French political establishment that Chirac romped to reelection with nearly three-fourths of the vote in the runoff.
In 2011 and ’12, however, the National Front’s message is not so distasteful amid growing French anger about immigrants ranging from the Roma (gypsies) to Muslims, with Muslim women now banned from wearing the traditional veil in public. Moreover, as political correspondents who interview her almost always concluded, Marine Le Pen is not Jean-Marie LePen.
A Kinder, Gentler Le Pen
A single mother of two, Marine Le Pen often addresses her criticism of liberal immigration policy and the economy under the EU in terms of how it affects young families. She has voiced sharp disagreement with her father’s broadsides against Jews and the Holocaust.
Most recently, following the sensational arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of assaulting a hotel maid in New York, Le Pen stood alone among high-profile French politicians in not rushing to the defense of the former International Monetary Fund chief known as “DSK.” She reminded voters of DSK’s reputation as a “crude womanizer.”
All things considered, it still seems a reach that someone named Le Pen—albeit one that is kinder, gentler and younger—could come close to winning the presidency of France in 2012, given the controversial history of the name and what it stands for. But given the economic tumult in Europe, the growing tension surrounding non-European immigrants in France, and the uncertain nature of French politics, a strong Le Pen showing is probably no more unlikely than, say, Sarkozy overtaking Hollande next year. It is an unpredictable contest, and one the rest of the world will surely watch closely.