(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) France and Europe were left shaken and confused after Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party won 18 per cent of the vote in last week's first round presidential election.
President Nicholas Sarkozy did better than polls had predicted, but the widely anticipated first place win of Socialist Francois Hollande was still a humiliation to the hyperkinetic Sarkozy who sought to wrap himself in the French flag. Polls show Hollande, a bland, unassuming figure, continues to lead Sarkozy in the final election to be held on 6 May.
The National Front is no longer on the ballot in the final two-man race, but it remains the hulking 800-kg gorilla in the ornate drawing room of French politics. As Marine Le Pen said, French politics will never be the same again.
Just who and what does the National Front represent? I spent a day in the late 1980's interviewing party founder and father of Marine, Jean Marie Le Pen, and have followed the Le Pens ever since. Leftist critics have branded Jean-Marie Le Pen as a fascist. This is not accurate. I found the big, burly, convivial former paratrooper a modern-day apostle of the Vichy France of 1940's era: ardently Catholic, anti-foreign, an enemy of the rich industrial class and what he calls "Jewish money," a fierce foe of Communism and Socialism, and advocate of harsh law and order. "Emigration equals invasion," he memorably told me.
His daughter, Marine, softened her father's rhetoric, and is more discreet, but her policies are similar. She wants France to ditch the Euro, end globalism, break the power of the banking elite " a goal shared by Hollande " and crack down on crime and emigration.
Marine Le Pen's policies are bitterly anti-Muslim. She blames France's 5 to 6 million Muslims for many of the nation's troubles. Sarkozy, in an desperate attempt to attract National Front voters on 6 May, has jumped on the anti-Muslim bandwagon and has intensified his anti-Muslim rhetoric, warning of the alleged dangers of more mosques, halal meat, veils and terrorism.
Sarkozy, a long-time pro-Israel neocon, is beating the war drums for an attack on Syria. France's 600,000 Jews are solidly behind him.
The big question now is how many of the 6.4 million French who just voted for the National Front can Sarkozy and his UMP party attract. This shift will decide the election.
National Front supporters are a mixed bag. There are working class people furious their factories are being closed and outsourced to East Europe or Asia as unemployment heads over 10 per cent. Many blame Sarkozy and his business mogul friends, or Jewish finance, Muslims, or Americans. They are angry and explosive.
The National Front also draws Muslim haters, anti-Semites, supporters of an all white France, the elderly, and minor neo-fascist groups, as well as small shopkeepers fearing their businesses will be crushed by huge retailers. In the 1950's, a rightist political Party led by Pierre Poujade fought for "petits commercants."
Marine Le Pen's strategy is to break up Sarkozy's UMP party and become the party of the center-right. If Sarkozy is defeated on May 6, his bickering, unstable party may indeed fragment, allowing Le Pen to pick up the pieces in important parliamentary elections on June 6.
Europe's neo-fascists, like Holland's Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, are cheering Le Pen's stunning vote win.
Europe's center-right leaders are not. They fear growing economic malaise and stresses will spark the same kind of surge to the far right seen in France.
They fear as much a win by Hollande's big-spending Socialists will undermine their efforts to stabilise continental finances through austerity and saving, or even wreck the vital Franco-German entente that is the foundation of European unity. But Le Pen's calls to quit the Euro, return to the franc, and protectionism find many ears across Europe.
Eric Margolis is a veteran US journalist