From Brexit to the rise of Donald Trump, 2016 has been a humbling year for political forecasters. In France, could they be wrong again in writing off the far-right’s prospects in next year’s presidential election?
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, certainly thinks so. She sees signs of encouragement from Britain, the United States and across Europe where mass migration, inequality and terrorism have eroded old certainties.
Conventional wisdom holds that she will make it into the second round of the election next April and then lose, when centre-right and left-wing voters will back a more mainstream candidate.
This would be a similar outcome to the 2002 election when her estranged father caused a political earthquake in European politics by reaching the second round–where he was defeated by Jacques Chirac.
Six months before the French go to the polls, the 48-year-old is on a mission to win over the last of the anti-FN diehards, canvassing pensioners, teachers and other groups that have long regarded the party as untouchable.
“Those who think there is no chance (of Le Pen winning) and that there is no threat from the far-right are greatly mistaken,” Jean-Marie Le Guen, the junior minister for parliamentary relations, warned recently.
“She is absolutely convinced she can win,” one of Le Pen’s advisors told AFP.
Closer race against Sarkozy
So far polls tell a different story.
Even if Le Pen wins the first round, the lingering stigma around the FN is predicted to trip her up, with her second-round rival, tipped to be former prime minister Alain Juppe, expected to easily defeat her.
A survey by the BVA polling group last month showed Juppe beating her by 66-34 percent.
The race would be a closer affair however if Le Pen came face-to-face with former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Juppe’s main challenger for the right-wing nomination in a November primary.
The same BVA survey showed a much tighter race. Sarkozy, a far more polarising figure than Juppe, would win by a smaller margin of 56-44 percent in the final duel, it said.
In France’s depressed north, voters in former leftist bastions have decamped in droves to the protectionist FN, out of frustration with the government’s failure to halt factory closures.
The FN, which has blamed the EU for much of France’s ills and pushed for a “Frexit” referendum on France’s EU membership, reaped the spoils of the Socialists’ demise in last year’s regional elections, topping the poll with 28 percent.