Having secured nearly one in five votes cast in the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday, far right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen has the potential to swing what is likely to be a close second round on May 6.
But for the moment, Marine Le Pen is not asking her supporters to choose between incumbent centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy or Socialist challenger François Hollande. Instead, she is basking in the glory of her surprisingly strong showing – more than 18% of the vote – and touting her party’s central message: that the two main parties interchangeably represent the “elite”, while she is the one true alternative to the status-quo in French politics.
“Tonight is historic,” Le Pen gushed to her supporters gathered in the 15th district of Paris on Sunday. “We are the only opposition to the ultra-liberal, libertarian left-wing.”
Smiling and putting her hand to her heart, the National Front leader led the room in singing the French national anthem. A little girl, carried away by the festive atmosphere on election day, ran through the crowds carrying a tricoloured flag.
Across the room, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the aging former leader of the party (and father of Marine) looked on with pride. “This is the start of a long road to a future victory,” he told a group of journalists. “Marine is the only one offering a path of change.”
Marine, the face of the new far right
More than 500 supporters came out to celebrate Le Pen’s strong first-round showing on Sunday night. Couples, families, and groups of friends brandishing “Marine for President” banners and decked out in “I Love Marine” pins and red-white-and-blue outfits and makeup, sipped white wine.
The mood was one of pride and accomplishment. “Marine defends the values and traditions of France. That’s why I voted for her,” said 22-year-old Jérémie. “I handed out pamphlets, I did everything I could, and it paid off.”
A more seasoned National Front loyalist, 42-year-old Jean-Christophe, explained his reasons for supporting the candidate. “I’m against legalising immigrants without papers, no exceptions….We’re not able to welcome them properly, so we should offer them aid in their own countries,” he said.
Others were eager to point Marine Le Pen as a symbol of an evolving, more inclusive far-right party. Whereas her father, who acted as party president from 1972 to 2011, was known for inflammatory racist and anti-Semitic statements, Marine ran a campaign tightly focused on economic protectionism and an exit from the Eurozone.
“People need to stop calling us fascists, Nazis, and racists – it’s ridiculous,” exclaimed Carl, aged 46, from Corsica. “I like everyone, no matter what the colour of their skin is!”
A ‘turning point’ in French politics?
According to her supporters, Le Pen’s historically strong performance Sunday night catapults her to the centre of the French political scene, making her a force that cannot be ignored by Sarkozy, Hollande, and their respective parties.
“It’s a major turning point in French politics,” said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s niece. “The candidates in the second round will be obligated to consider our policy proposals and solutions.”
Le Pen is expected to clarify her position on the second-round face-off on May 1, just days before the final vote on May 6. National Front Vice-President Louis Alliot suggested on Monday that Le Pen would not formally endorse either candidate “as things stand”.
But some National Front voters may feel they have no other option. Antoine, a 46-year-old Corsican, said that his priority was to prevent the left from taking over the presidency and therefore guaranteeing France “a future like that of Greece”. He, as well as the four friends who accompanied him Sunday night, will therefore vote – grudgingly – for Sarkozy.
Others will stay home. “Sarko and Hollande are the same,” one Le Pen supporter told France24.com. “They’re both defenders of executives and big bosses, not the working class – unlike Marine. I’ll stay in bed for the second round.”
According to a poll published by Ipsos, a French market research company, 18% of National Front voters will vote for Hollande in the second round, while 60% will opt for Sarkozy.
22%, however, have not yet decided.