Marine's Gamble

In French political circles it’s always been sort of assumed that everyone knows this but I’ve rarely seen it spelled out explicitly, so here goes.

Here’s how Marine Le Pen’s strategic vision pans out:

- In 2012, an unpopular Sarkozy loses in the first round, and there is a Socialist-National Front runoff

- The reason why this would be a much bigger deal than the Le Pen-Chirac runoff in 2002 is that there are many, many people who don’t vote for the National Front but who would vote for them over a left-wing candidate. Maybe not the moderate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but current Socialist Party chairman Martine Aubry, whose signature policy achievement is the 35 hour work week? The shrill and incompetent Ségolène Royal?

- With a “bona fide” Socialist facing Marine Le Pen, who isn’t tainted by her father’s anti-Semitic and racist legacy and who has been moderating her party’s image, it’s conceivable that the FN could get 35, maybe 40% of the vote.

- This would be a total game-changer in French politics.

- The French Right facing an ascendant Left would have to contemplate an alliance with the FN whereby they would give them a number of parliamentary seats and one or two ministerial posts in a future government, like the Socialist Party does with the Communists. This would almost certainly split the UMP in half, whose centrists already have one foot out the door.

This, by the way, is precisely why Marine Le Pen is facing opposition within her party. Marine Le Pen wants to govern, and sees a path to government. But many within the FN realize that governing is the worse thing that could happen to them. The FN’s populist, xenophobic policies would only aggravate France’s problems, and many of them like withdrawal from the Euro are fantasy.

In terms of anti-immigration legislation, there’s not much further that French law can go after Sarkozy’s many rounds of tightening, without running afoul of the Constitution, the EU and the European Court of Human Rights. Once the FN fails to deliver the goods, its electorate will bolt, most likely to abstention for most, to radical activism for a few.

The greatest French political genius of the 20th century, François Mitterrand, smothered the Communists with love, inviting them into government and letting them screw the pooch and whither into irrelevance by themselves.

Arguably, the French right should have swallowed hard and done that with the FN 10, 15 years ago. But is there someone on the French Right today with the political skill to outmaneuver the FN? Highly unlikely.

This failure is to a very large extent Sarkozy’s. His hard-right 2007 campaign was explicitly meant to siphon away FN votes and bring them back into the fold of the responsible UMP, and it worked like a charm, at least at first. Unlike many commentators, I don’t believe speaking to the FN’s voter empowers them, to the contrary.

So, what happened?

Sarkozy simply failed to deliver the goods. At the end of the day, policy matters more than politics.

Bringing FN voters back to the fold requires more jobs and less crime. But Sarkozy has done nothing on the former and only posturing on the latter. Boosting employment in France really isn’t hard: you would have to relax labor regulations and cut payroll taxes. The problem is that you have to take on entrenched interests, particularly unions, to do that. And Sarkozy had the means to do so in the summer of ’07, during the French summer lull and right after his triumphant victory, where he passed the only pieces of legislation of consequence of the legislature, including a union-busting one. Instead of jobs though, he focused on regressive, value-destroying upper-middle class handouts like cutting taxes on inheritance and real estate transactions.

The FN is a symptom of something very serious in French life, and ignoring it the way most of our political class does isn’t going to cut it. It’s a symptom of economic and social malaise, for which there are obvious policy solutions that a World Bank or McKinsey (or IMF, n’est-ce pas Dominique?) report can explain better than I. But it’s also a symptom of the fact that France for decades never had a real right wing, but only a center right.

I’m still convinced that Sarkozy’s strategy would have paid off if he had governed as well as he campaigned. But that’s always a lot to ask, isn’t it?