Marine Le Pen will never be president of France. But if the French political balance moves further toward the fringes in the next decade, her National Front (FN) could end up as a necessary partner in any right-wing coalition. In a more far-flung scenario, the FN might elect so many more deputies than the conservatives that Le Pen couldn’t be excluded as a serious candidate for prime minister. But the rules that govern national elections make this highly unlikely, because they are written to exclude the extremes of the political spectrum. Today, Le Pen’s strategy involves several elements: She aims to win greater support across the country, influence policy as an outsider, and build toward eventual FN participation in an actual government. Despite anything you read in the American media, there is no possibility that the FN will rule in France.
French electoral rules work against the FN in three ways: First is the presidentialization of the ruling system carried out by Charles de Gaulle in 1962; second, a reduction in the presidential mandate from seven years to five, locking president and parliament into same five-year term; third, the presidential election takes precedence over the parliamentary election, rather than the other way around, as had been the case.
De Gaulle, the founding president of the Fifth Republic in 1958, brought two constitutional reforms into being in 1962. First, the weak presidency constitutionally inherited from the Fourth Republic was given expanded powers in relation to the prime ministerial government. This created a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system in which the president had the upper hand. This new balance of power, with a strong president with a politically compliant prime minister, became permanent, surviving de Gaulle’s departure from power in 1969. Second, majority voting became the sole electoral law – a bipolar logic requiring candidates at all levels to seek 50.1 percent of the vote, or at least a plurality, to win. The two-ballot system allowed citizens to vote their hearts on the first ballot and their minds on the second. This dynamic works against the extremist parties.
Thus in this weekend’s runoffs in local (departmental) elections, the FN’s 25-percent takeaway on the first ballot will net dramatically fewer winners on the second ballot than outsiders might expect. The FN will control only a few local councils – those few where its electorate is concentrated, such as certain parts of the old industrial northeast around Lille and in the Mediterranean southeast around Marseilles. This will wrongly be cast as a huge FN setback, but in fact it is already stitched into the fabric of the electoral system.
In the 2017 presidential election, the same dynamic will play out. In his surprising presidential campaign in 2002, Marine’s father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, on the first ballot outdistanced by a whisker the Socialist candidate, outgoing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But Jospin was a weak candidate. In the second round against sitting president Jacques Chirac, non-FN voters on the right and left voted in unison, and Le Pen lost 80-20 to Chirac.
What the FN can do
In 2017, Marine Le Pen will perform even better on the first ballot than her father did in 2002. Moreover, if she happens to outdistance the conservative candidate (former President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example), she will presumably face off against a Socialist candidate (sitting president Francois Hollande or a new face). Most of the first round non-FN voters will then become anti-FN voters. She, like her father, will lose by a wide margin to a Socialist in the runoff ballot, even though she will fare much better than her father’s 60-percent defeat. Of course, the Socialist candidate could be surpassed on the first ballot by a conservative candidate. The second round would then pit Le Pen against a conservative candidate. She would still lose.
On the other hand, the FN could win enough seats to become part of a government coalition. This is also unlikely, if less so – National Assembly contests also work on a first-past-the-post voting system. In theory, as in U.S. congressional and UK parliamentary voting, the FN could get 49 percent of the vote in every district and lose 100 percent of the time, netting no seats at all. (If parliamentary elections were held on proportional voting rules, the FN would win big, because there would be only one round of voting, and the FN wouldn’t need allies.)
The wild card situation is this: Suppose that in a future parliamentary election, the FN’s deputies were necessary to building a conservative majority. In that case, the FN could be brought into a government by a conservative president. This actually happened on the left in 1981, when new Socialist President Francois Mitterrand brought in the French Communist party even though his Socialists had an absolute parliamentary majority. But Mitterrand’s strategy was to reduce the sway of the Communists by making them responsible for government decisions, showing they were not revolutionaries, had little power, and could be satisfied with a few ministerial posts. It worked. However, the Communists were a party in decline, whereas the FN is on the rise. That the presidential election now precedes the parliamentary election creates a considerable roadblock for the FN, because French voters will want to give the new president the parliamentary majority needed to govern – not to divide the president from the government, which creates the necessity of “cohabitation” at the top, begetting political uncertainty. (This has happened three times).
So what is Marine Le Pen up to today? Basically she wants the French to get used to viewing the FN as a serious political force, indeed a mainstream movement and a plausible partner in a government. In this weekend’s local elections, she doesn’t expect to overturn everything. She wants the party to increase its local presence across the country and be able to wave its banner. In a far-fetched but not entirely implausible future, she and the FN could be seen as a bulwark against the unlikely rise of a Muslim political force in the party system. This of course is the theme of Michel Houllebecq’s controversial new novel, Soumission (Submission, or perhaps better, Surrender). Marine Le Pen’s comment on the novel: “It’s a fiction that could one day become reality.” In other words, in the ideological struggle, Marine Le Pen continues to mark new terrain.