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David Miller Online: Why Did Le Pen Win?

The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections sent shockwaves and anger through France and Europe. Mr. Le Pen’s victory has led to mass demonstrations throughout France and the belief that the Fifth Republic is facing its most deadly threat since Charles de Gaulle founded it back in 1958. Set against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the situation in the Middle East this victory has led the French and Europe to question the levels of political extremism that exists within their borders.

The victory for Mr. Le Pen is not as much a victory for far right politics as it is a defeat for the left and its inability to unite and meet the challenge. It is recognised that throughout the election build up, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin fought a very ineffectual campaign and his policies and platforms have become very closely linked to President Jacques Chirac.

It would appear that much of the electorate voted in protest about the situation in France, for example, the rising crime rate and unemployment. Therefore they elected to cast their vote in favour of the outside candidates -- for the extreme candidates of left and right and the closeness of the programs of the two major candidates and allegations of sleaze and corruption pushed this process further.

The lesson that France and other countries should learn from this experience is that the opportunity for the likes of Mr. Le Pen arises when the vote for a particular Electoral College splinters. Certainly Mr. Le Pen was able to use issues and fears such as rising unemployment, immigration and loss of sovereignty through European integration to rally people to his cause but the to the second round was open due to the French left being unable to unite behind one leader.

If history has taught us anything it is that this is the opportunity the extremists often need and the most potent example is the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was able to seize power largely due to the failure of the centre parties and those just to the left to unite and form a viable coalition or united front with which to rally the country’s voters. To a lesser extent, history has repeated in France in 2002.

Mr. Le Pen is a gifted orator and used these skills to great effect during the campaign. He appealed to the farmers and the business people playing on their fears of an economic future dominated by Europe and fuelled the immigration debate by calling for the creation of “transit camps” and special trains to deport asylum seekers. In a time of rising unemployment and financial uncertainty, such rhetoric was always going to strike a cord among sectors of the population.

Despite his success and populist talk, it is doubtful that Mr. Le Pen will oust Gaullist President Jacques Chirac in the run off. Mr. Chirac himself has a chequered history and is tainted by allegations of sleaze and corruption. It is ironic to think that the voters of France who wished to be rid of Mr. Chirac have no alternative but to rally behind him and it is likely that many socialists will cast their votes in his favour in spite of their views.

Whether the socialists can make up ground in the French parliament will remain to be seen. Their best hope in this regard is that another split occurs, this time within the right wing vote with many would be Chirac supporters casting ballots for the National Front. It may seem a strange thing to wish for but it will allow them an avenue to power, as was the case for Mr. Le Pen and that their voices can be heard through this forum.

Regardless of the Le Pen victory and the protests and fear that has swept through France and Europe during the past week, the Fifth Republic is not in danger. Mr Chirac will win a second term. What is damaging for France is that a victory of this kind happened in their country and perhaps this is what many French people protesting on the streets are concerned about. Unfortunately they cannot escape this tarnishing but hopefully they will have learnt that if they wish to keep extremism at bay find a suitable candidate that can rally and unite the support. Extremism is strong only when democracy is weak.

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