The French aren’t that interested in Europe to begin with, and these days care less and less about it. Even so, they managed to morph the recent European parliamentary elections into a time bomb and plant it under their country’s own future.
The French political puzzle has been flipped upside down by the May 25 vote, with Marine Le Pen, flag bearer of the far-right National Front, left fiddling with the pieces. With its stunning score of nearly 25 percent of the European vote in France and utter crushing of all other political camps, the National Front not only flexed its muscles but upended its two traditional opponents, the governing Socialists and the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (U.M.P.).
This wouldn’t seem so earth-shaking if it didn’t come just three years before France’s next presidential election, in 2017, because the French are now asking the unthinkable: Can the National Front rise to the top of the national ladder?
Manuel Valls, named prime minister just over two months ago to rescue François Hollande’s flailing presidency, didn’t hesitate an instant to call the European election results an “earthquake.” He might have done better to keep quiet, all the more that the next day the president went on prime-time TV to share his view of the disaster — only without the least hint of what he could do about it.
Just like that, French politics veered into tragicomedy. While the Socialists run around shouting “Every man for himself,” the U.M.P., the party that propelled Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency in 2007, promptly burst into flames whipped up by the so-called Bygmalion affair. The scandal, which had been smoldering for weeks, swirls around more than 10 million euros in “fake invoices” intended to hide overspending by Mr. Sarkozy’s 2012 re-election campaign. The fakes were issued by the Bygmalion communications firm under pressure from the U.M.P., which wanted them passed off as bills for party meetings and not Sarkozy campaign events. Evidence uncovered by the newsweekly Le Point and the daily Libération newspaper had already convinced everyone that the fire would reach the party’s president, Jean-François Copé.
No one, however, was prepared for the firestorm that erupted on May 26, the day after the European elections, when Mr. Copé’s lieutenants, to save their skin, threw their hapless boss (and Mr. Sarkozy) out of the window by admitting to the entire scheme and declaring that the fake invoices were an attempt to cover up huge (and illegal) campaign spending excesses. Here was Jérôme Lavrilleux, Mr. Copé’s chief of staff and deputy director of Mr. Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign, spilling the beans in a tearful TV interview, melting down under the studio lights as he confessed. The nation blinked and wondered, and then sighed as the U.M.P. went up in smoke.
Meanwhile, over in Mr. Sarkozy’s office, the earth shook firmly. At U.M.P. headquarters, too, though Mr. Copé — whose hero is none other than Zorro — dug in his heels and swore he hadn’t known what was going on until just recently. The next day, however, the big men of the party gathered to boot him out, the tale of his political execution sent out via Twitter to anyone who cared.
The Bygmalion affair has crippled the U.M.P. The courts are now involved. The party has no viable leader to oppose Ms. Le Pen. Even Mr. Sarkozy can hardly ride to the rescue this time.
Ms. Le Pen, meanwhile, only has to reap the whirlwind, just like her father, Jean-Marie, did in the 1990s when political financing scandals in France exposed the “total rot” of the system. It was Mr. Le Pen who, in April 2002, got into the second round of the presidential election against Jacques Chirac.
These days, the National Front is driven by its desire to end the grip of the major parties; to deconstruct Europe; and to block immigration in order to give the French people back “their country, their freedom, their fortunes and their pride.” With lofty fervor, Marine Le Pen declares that the political divide is no longer between left and right, but between a country, France, and the forces of globalization. By casting the National Front as the alternative to the Socialist Party and the U.M.P, she is betting that her party will soar in the battle for the presidency in 2017 — maybe even win.
That’s a sobering thought for a country stuck in economic malaise. Mr. Hollande, the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular president, has practically no cards left to play, other than to somehow get Europe to initiate an economic revival. But it’s been two unfruitful years since he began pushing Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to get things going. And he got nowhere fast at a European policy meeting in Brussels on May 27, the first high-level conclave since the parliamentary elections, when he conjured up a Euro-phobic wave washing over the Continent. In response to his renewed pleas for a European rebirth, Ms. Merkel didn’t say no, but she didn’t say yes either. What she focused on, however, was how weak France had become, to the point that it could be considered the new “sick man of Europe.” Not exactly what a reeling national leader wanted to hear.
Which brings us back to Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Few want to admit that she could win the presidency, though a lot of people would vote for her out of protest. A cartoon in the satirical French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné shows Marine and her father toasting their party’s victory in the European elections: She says, “To the unhappy French!” And he says, “That they stay that way till 2017!”
They probably will. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in France who isn’t fed up with national politics and all the expensive drama, impatient to pull out of the six-year-long economic spiral, or even willing to give up on the grand European project. The French would more than like to see better days. And if that means sending Marine Le Pen to the Élysée Palace in 2017, then a lot of people say: So be it.
But the space between now and then is a pretty serious gap. After all, Ms. Le Pen has yet to convince the French that pulling out of the euro, as she hopes to do, will mean a revival of France’s fortunes. While she has ample time before the election to fine-tune her argument, the big French left and right parties have little time to keep a Le Pen presidency from actually happening.
Meanwhile, you can be sure that moderate Europe is watching the French tragicomedy closely as scores of nationalist and ultra-nationalist Euro-deputies from across the Continent march into their newly won offices. Wasting no time, Ms. Le Pen has vowed to lead the Euro-phobic movement in the European Parliament. That may not be so easy, however, since Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party, whose grouping got 27 percent of Britain’s European vote, ruled out any sort of formal alliance with the National Front, though he knows they may end up on the same side on some issues. In the coming battle for power, we may well witness a political and economic shootout at the heart of Europe that leaves the radicals and their extreme cousins standing tall.
It is no exaggeration to say that the French fire could threaten the entire European house. All the same, in a sad twist on be careful what you wish for, no one seems to know quite what to do.
Françoise Fressoz is a political columnist for Le Monde and author of the blog Le 19 Heures. This article was translated by Kyle Jarrard from the French.