Right-wing leader breaks the glass ceiling

The first lesson of the French political crisis provoked by Jean-Marie le Pen’s first-round poll success in the presidential election is that if you treat your politics as farce they can all too easily turn into tragedy.

There was the intense personalisation of the contest, with the wives of the leading candidates dragged into the fray to sustain risible propositions such as that Lionel Jospin was not stuffy or that Jacques Chirac was a model of rectitude.

There was the unthinking faith in the polls, even though they had been wrong before, underestimating support for the far-right National Front leader in the last presidential elections.

Finally, there was the traditional readiness to treat the first round as a way of registering strong protests and prejudices before the serious business of choosing from the “real” candidates. Unfortunately one of the “real” candidates got lost in the process.

Even if all this was in a sense accidental, it has nevertheless undermined certain hopeful assumptions upon which the conduct of French politics was based. One was that there is a measurable glass ceiling against which Le Pen and the National Front will always bump.

Studying the voting record of the last quarter century, political scientists found at first a 10% level and later, after an improvement in the National Front’s performance, a level somewhere between 13% and 15% in national elections beyond which Le Pen and the party were supposed to be unable to go.
At that point he would butt helplessly against the core constituencies of other parties.

The glass ceiling theory may still be correct, but it is a critical couple of percentage points higher than it was supposed to be. “You the excluded, the steelworkers, the workers of all those industries ruined by the Euro-globalisation of Maastricht, you the farmers forced into ruin, you the first victims of crime in the suburbs and the cities,” was how Le Pen addressed his supporters as the results came in.

Those results show significant changes in the geographical pattern of National Front voting. The Front took many votes in areas where it is traditionally strong, such as the south-west, but it also took many new votes in the north.

This may reflect another change. In the past, investigation suggested that the typical National Front voter was neither unemployed nor living next door to immigrants nor much troubled by crime, but rather feared all three prospects. Now the Front may be picking up more of the votes of the genuinely disadvantaged.

Two other assumptions were that, over time, the fragilities of the French mainstream right and left would be overcome. The French Socialist Party would reliably and permanently take over the support which the Communist Party had enjoyed in the past and combine it with its own left-liberal, middle-class constituency.

But this was not accomplished under either François Mitterrand or Jospin. It was made more difficult for Jospin because he felt he had to run a market-friendly government, which left him open to accusations of selling out from parties further to the left. The equivalent hope on the other side was that the decrepitude of the centre-right could somehow be tolerated and carried until a renewal was possible, no doubt after Chirac’s departure from politics.

Finally, there was the related assumption that France could get by for a while longer with a suit of constitutional clothes that had been tailored for Charles de Gaulle but which fits nobody else very well. The authority of the presidency has diminished during the Chirac years, and the pain of cohabitation has seemed less and less worth the bother.

It is all the more ironic that the only way out is to re-elect Chirac as the candidate of the democratic left and right alike. If he is then flanked by an assembly in which the Socialists have a good majority, there will be a continuation of the cohabitation of which everybody is tired. A more volatile and finely balanced assembly, which is also a possibility, could create real trouble both in formal politics and on the streets of France.

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