For centuries France has attracted immigrants who have settled. In 1951 it was a joint founder of the EU’s precursor. So how come the anti-immigration, eurosceptic Front National has just won a national election?
A clear vote for the FN and its policies?
Until just a few years ago, TV channels shunned FN leader Marine Le Pen and her party, but she is now treated just like any other politician.
A trained lawyer, she is a convincing, confident TV performer and many consider she has succeeded in detoxifying the party’s image.
She maintains the party is no longer homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and has swiftly expelled party activists exposed as such.
But it is unclear to what extent her supporters agree with her tough stance on these issues and whether they are actually attracted to the FN because of its reputation as anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic.
The new-style FN is hostile to the EU, thinks France should dump the euro, favours protectionist economic policies, wants sovereign control over France's immigration policy, vehemently defends the French system of separating religion and state and is unapologetically firm on law and order.
Le Pen has threatened to sue journalists who use the term “far right” to label her party, and it’s the “right” not the “far” that she rejects, declaring that it is an inaccurate description of a party which appeals to ordinary people.
The French Front National has never had a clear economic direction. Politics comes first, economics is secondary, and it has veered from a party which embraced Thatcherite, anti-union ideas in the 1980s to one which is now loudly critical of economic liberalism.
A vote against Hollande and the Socialist government?
Hollande and his government, are almost epically unpopular. The governing Socialist party scored their worst result ever (under 14%) and it is hard to find anyone who approves of Hollande today in France.
Those who didn’t vote for him feel he has exceeded their worst expectations as a president and many of those who did, tell pollsters they now feel let down or betrayed. After railing against the world of finance in a fiery crowd-pleasing presidential election campaign speech, he was forced in January to embrace a more business-friendly approach in a bid to boost employment. He has announced 50 billion euros worth of cuts in order to reduce the French debt. His popularity is at 18% and the cuts have barely begun. After two disastrous election batterings, many Socialist politicians who feel Hollande has now veered too far to the right, feel they have little left to lose and government and party discipline, already fragile, could crack still further.
No alternative opposition?
The main opposition right-wing UMP party had an appalling run up to the election, divided ideologically over the EU but worse still, with a contested leader, Jean-François Copé refusing to explain himself amid accusations that he was at the centre of a massive party-funding scam. He has just resigned. Numerous allegations and investigations concerning the activities of various other UMP members during the Sarkozy years have contributed to creating an aura of sleaze and corruption in the party. And with countless UMP faces hoping to be the party’s next presidential candidate in 2017, the campaign was, for many in the UMP, simply an opportunity to stab rivals in the back. The internal politics of the UMP is further complicated by the fact that no one is sure whether or not Nicolas Sarkozy will step back into the political arena.
The system of proportional representation, only used for EU elections in France, also favoured the Front National.
Turnout was low at 43%
And yes, many French people no doubt considered that in elections to the European parliament, they could express their general annoyance without risking any concrete impact on their own lives.
François Hollande will join other EU leaders in Brussels tonight where they will discuss the EU-wide election results.
He will cite the eurosceptic FN score as evidence of dissatisfaction among the French with the EU and he’ll probably again ask for some leniency as France tries to meet EU targets concerning spending cuts and restructuring of the French economy.
But other EU leaders are unlikely to let him off. “France, to be credible, must submit to the common [EU] discipline” an EU official told Le Figaro newspaper on Tuesday.
Meanwhile Britain, the other big EU country where a eurosceptic party, UKIP, topped the polls causing similar political chaos, will have its own demands.