Why the far right did so well in the French election

There are two ways of looking at the results of the first round of the French presidential vote. On the surface, voters chose to engineer a classic left-right competition by sending the Socialist candidate François Hollande and the outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy into the second round, on 6 May.

But that's far from the whole story. The biggest upset did not come, as was expected, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the maverick leftwing Socialist dissident in coalition with with the remains of the Communists – but from Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National.

Le Pen was credited with 18% of the vote, higher than the 16.5% that got her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the second round in 2002. It was the highest score for a far-right candidate in a presidential election in France's fifth republic.

Having contradicted the opinion polls and expert predictions – another blatant illustration of the gap between commentators and the reality on the ground – Le Pen proclaimed that she had become the real leader of the right in France, and promised a big role for her party in the country's political future.

So this result – the performance of a party that is openly xenophobic, and has campaigned on an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform, despite replacing the threatening face of the father with the blonde and smiling one of the daughter – is the current focus of all debate.

With one in every five citizens ready to vote for what is, ultimately, a racist party, is France simply a racist country? This is an over-simplified view of Le Pen's rise; the driving force behind the Front National's success is definitely socioeconomic and cultural.

"Marine", as her supporters call her, has managed to bring under her wing different and even contradictory groups of voters who abhor anything "foreign", whether it is the immigrant who takes jobs and social benefits, or globalisation, open borders, and the euro that drive jobs to faraway countries, with no apparent benefits for ordinary people. Voting for Le Pen remains an act of protest against mainstream parties that have not offered convincing solutions to France's woes while enjoying the benefits of power.

France's poor – the marginalised, the "invisible", as Marine Le Pen describes those who have been excluded from the economic system by the crisis – have chosen to vote in big numbers for the far right rather than for those on the left who traditionally have a claim to speak in their name.

Mélenchon tried hard to convince those voters to choose a leftwing alternative, but failed to make significant inroads, not matching Le Pen's wider appeal. He partly succeeded with working class and young voters, but not with the "new poor" of the current crisis, who have rallied to the Front National. But Le Pen's success is also, as Hollande suggested in his first speech on Sunday night, the responsibility of Nicolas Sarkozy who played with fire in his attempts to bring back Front National voters to his side.

He encroached shamelessly on their ground, stoking up fears of immigration and Islam. One of his top aides – Claude Guéant, the minister of the interior – even suggested in a speech that all civilizations were not equal.

He took the risk of legitimising what should have remained marginal and extreme ideas and themes. As a result Marine Le Pen's credibility was reinforced. "Don't take the counterfeit, take the original," she said many times about Sarkozy's attempts to woo voters away from her. And they listened.

The tragedy of Sarkozy is that to win on 6 May, he has no option but to use the same language, even more loudly, mixed with calls for patriotism and scare tactics over a leftwing victory – even if it means sacrificing principle and further bolstering the appeal of Le Pen.

A majority of the French might still decide to turn the page on the Sarkozy era once and for all on 6 May. But it will not be the end of the story: Sarkozy will be out, but Le Pen will be there, waiting in the wings, her position stronger than ever in a troubled country.

Pierre Haski is a former foreign correspondent for AFP and Libération, in Johannesburg, Jerusalem and Beijing, and a former deputy editor of the french daily Liberation.

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