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Populism on the rise in France

Presidential campaign reveals the advance of extremism on both right and left

The economic crisis, and the crisis of values that Europe appears to be undergoing, serves to strengthen the extreme right, but also the sector of the left that has always been at odds with the premises of social democracy.

France is a perfect laboratory in which to observe this phenomenon. All eyes are on the struggle between Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande for the presidency of the Republic, but on the extremities of the political stage other voices are heard: Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who each account for 14 to 15 percent of voter intention in the first electoral round. These splinter percentages are not enough to win, but may be enough to condition the election, in the second round, of one of the two major-party favorites.

Le Pen is the heir of an ultra-right current initiated by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, while Mélenchon embodies a novel attempt to bring together an amalgam of dissident Socialists, Communists and former voters of the extreme left, an operation also recognizable in the German Die Linke, and even — differences aside — in the Spanish United Left (IU) grouping.

Marine Le Pen wants to see France outside the euro, and to put an end to what she calls the Islamic invasion of Europe. She enjoys the favor of certain popular media, which used to support left-wing options, but she has also been making notable progress among young people. Some 26 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 now say they intend to vote for her, twice as many as at the end of last year, according to surveys by the statistical agency CSA.

Marine Le Pen is a divorced woman, and is not opposed to abortion. On these points she seems to be a slight “modernizing” advance on the traditional, rightist fundamentalism of her father. But the essence of her appeal lies in the same anti-system and anti-elitist spirit. She also nets massive electoral catches in the plentiful fishing grounds of low-income young people who have been poor achievers at school.

Meanwhile a former Trotskyist and ex-Socialist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who in January only accounted for six percent of voter intention, has more than doubled his expectations. Heir to a certain revolutionary mythology critical both of capitalism and of social democracy, he proposes things such as retirement for everyone at the age of 60, a 20-percent hike in the minimum wage, and setting a maximum ceiling of 360,000 euros on annual salaries.

The Socialist Party candidate Hollande needs to check the progress of Mélenchon if he does not wish to come out as the loser, but in turn he will need the support of his voters for the second round. And then the legislative elections are still to come. Neither France nor Europe are going to rid themselves easily of the populists, or of those who, without necessarily being populists, have distanced themselves from the mainstream currents of politics, or directly attack such positions.


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