Le Pen as President? France thinks the unthinkable
PARIS (Reuters) - The victory of France's far-right National Front in EU elections and the disarray of its two main parties has the French asking themselves an awkward question: could its leader Marine Le Pen be their next president?
The answer for now is: "Probably not". But the mere fact that serious analysts are even entertaining the prospect of Le Pen entering the Elysee Palace after 2017 elections shows how much the political landscape has been shaken in the past week.
The anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic party notched up the first nationwide poll victory in its four-decade history on Sunday in a European Parliament election marked by voter disenchantment with Europe and the entire French political establishment.
Two days later, France's body politic took another blow as the leadership of the conservative opposition UMP quit en masse after allegations of fraudulent funding of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's failed 2012 election campaign.
A new jobless high released on Wednesday underlined why Socialist President Francois Hollande's popularity ratings remain stuck at record lows for a modern-day French leader. It added to the sense of deep desperation felt by many French.
"The way things are now, when Marine Le Pen speaks, people listen to her," said Jean-Daniel Levy of pollster Harris Interactive. "Election after election, she just goes from strength to strength.
To be sure, the FN has been gradually building momentum for years. But its supporters, enemies and independent political analysts alike all agree that something new is emerging.
In 2002, when Le Pen's firebrand father Jean-Marie shocked France by beating his Socialist rival out of the run-off to that year's presidential election, an estimated 1.3 million people took to the streets in stunned protest.
In the decisive second round, left-wing voters famously took pictures of themselves clutching their noses as they voted for the conservative candidate Jacques Chirac - putting aside their contempt for him to ensure Le Pen was comprehensively beaten.
This time, there has been no such mass protest. Attempts to rally anti-FN demonstrators in Paris on Thursday's Ascension Day public holiday mustered only about 4,200 people, mostly high-school and university students, according to police estimates.
"It (the FN's poll win) shows that a certain racist sentiment has become commonplace in France," said Marion Faucheux, a 28-year-old welfare worker at the rally.
Since taking control of the party from her father in 2011, 45-year-old Marine Le Pen, a trained lawyer, has transformed the image of a party once tainted by association with anti-Semitism and sought, step by step, to make of it a party of government.
Aside from the odd slip - she was accused of incitement to racial hatred for a 2010 remark likening Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation of France - Le Pen has marginalized the party's old guard and punished overt racism in party ranks.
She has promoted capable operators such as her vice-president Florian Philippot, an alumnus of the prestigious ENA school. The FN's anti-immigrant platform is still there but Le Pen herself concentrates her redoubtable debating skills on tirades against the euro, free markets and the ineptitudes of her rivals.
The strategy shift has won the FN a whole new generation of supporters, with pollster Ipsos-Steria estimating that no fewer than 30 percent of voters under the age of 35 backed the FN in the European vote, and a huge 37 percent among the unemployed.
Moreover, the so-called "republican front" that in 2002 blocked Jean-Marie Le Pen - an unwritten pact among mainstream parties to step back and endorse rivals if they stand a better chance of seeing off the FN - is no longer guaranteed.
It was already ditched by the UMP ahead of 2012's parliament elections and patently failed in March's municipal vote. The result was that the FN is now running a record 11 town halls across France.
"Can it be revived in time for the 2017 election? At this stage it is simply too early to say," said Frederic Dabi, deputy director of the Ifop polling institute.
PARTY AT THE "ELYSEE LOUNGE"
As elsewhere, French mid-term polls are unreliable augurs: the ecologist Greens' followed up their record 16.3 percent score in the 2009 European Parliament vote with a meager 2.5 percent in the 2012 presidential election.
But already France's discredited mainstream parties know they cannot go up against the FN in 2017 with the status quo. Yet changing it in just three years may prove difficult.
Top conservatives led by former prime minister Alain Juppe have urged the UMP to get back on its feet and combat the FN by forging a new alliance with UDI-Modem centrists - a move Modem chairman Francois Bayrou said this week he would consider.
The centrists want a primary to decide who gets any joint ticket for 2017. Yet Sarkozy - who unless he is wounded by the funding scandal surrounding his 2012 campaign is still the first choice for many on the French right - is not prepared to subject himself to any such exercise, his allies say.
Likewise the Socialist Party could seek to rally the Greens and small hard-left groupings such as the Left Party of Jean-Luc Melenchon behind its candidate. Yet left-wingers are unlikely to back Hollande - who this year came out as a moderate "social democrat" - or his even more center-leaning premier Manuel Valls.
"Such an alliance is impossible if it is on the basis of the government's current line," Socialist deputy Laurent Baumel told Reuters. "If the idea is to issue a rallying cry for unity against the FN threat - forget it."
Barring a swift upturn in the fortunes of the UMP and a tangible economic recovery needed to restore the credibility of the ruling Socialists, Le Pen is seen likely to emulate the 2002 exploit of her father and make it into the presidential run-off.
"If the FN makes it into the second round in 2017, our feeling is that the margin of victory will not be 80-20 as it was in 2002," said Bruno Jeanbart of Opinionway survey group, referring to Chirac's landslide 82-percent victory.
The choice of venue for the National Front's post-election night celebration last Sunday was perhaps no accident: a chic restaurant-bar in Paris's swish eighth arrondissement called "L'Elysee Lounge".
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Sophie Louet and by Pauline Ades-Mevel Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)