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With six days to go until the second round vote, Dr Lee Duffield gives a historical perspective on the French presidential elections.

IT IS A WONDER that the belting they have had in France has not made the French more sour than they are.

The tradition of open borders over time has brought in vicious Islamist terrorism, in the shape of marginalised and psychologically damaged "home grown" attackers; unemployment has persisted from the 1970s, hitting especially the young, with it reaching 25% among 18-24s for most of the intervening time; and then there is the corruption — so many trusted national leaders from the major parties, elected by the people, have turned out to be criminals.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right, anti-immigration National Front made a surge in the 1988 presidential elections, getting into double figures (14.5%).

His strong showing in the first round created a sense of foreboding among migrants and young people traditionally more friendly to their migrant schoolmates — a lot of them out of work. 

Against this, the defending Socialist Party president, the wily Francois Mitterrand, created a constituency for himself among immigrant French. “L’immigration c’est tout l’histoire de la France”, he said — the whole story of the French is a migration story. When the vote came out and le Pen was contained, the left of centre newspaper, Liberation, most read by younger voters, headlined the event, 'Soulagement' — relief.

Le Pen did get into the second round of voting at later elections, in 2002, winning just under 17% of votes to contest the two-candidate second round. He had squeaked past the Socialist Party candidate to contest the two-candidate second against the incumbent Jacques Chirac, but could not add to his vote and was defeated 82-18%.

However, ethnic tensions and violence and joblessness would go on and on, and so would corruption in public office.

In the decades of shock and self-doubt for the beautiful country, it was corruption in Mitterrand’s administration that broke public faith in his own party. Ministers in leftwing parties are not supposed to plunder nationalised industries to channel hundreds of millions of dollars to girlfriends — which was one charge. There were other cases on a grand scale.

And not only the Socialists, by a long chalk. On the right wing side, various Republicans shucked off the traditionalist mantle of Charles de Gaulle to assert the assumed right of born establishmentarians to milk the system. Successive scandals included ones where officeholders would have political operatives, even family members, on the public payroll, whether to work for their political party or do no work at all in the "job". Other scandals involved irregular contributions to campaign funds — for example, from Gaddafi in Libya, plus yet more arcane manoeuvrings in the financial markets. Even national presidents or presidential candidates would get named, investigated, charged, convicted.

It took decades, but public cynicism was bound to settle in, as it has done for Ingrid Betancourt and Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac, Bernard Tapie, Roland Dumas, Francois Fillon.

Fast forward to 2017, and the daughter and successor of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, has profited massively from the misfortunes and betrayals of the past 30 years. Terrorism: getting worse, and the linkage with racial prejudice and ethnicity plays up even more because of the global and regional immigration crisis. Unemployment: they try many remedies on all sides, but it is still eating away at the heart and soul of the country. Political corruption: the latest scandal involved the Republicans’ candidate in the elections this time.        

So is it too much of a surprise to find a reaction going on?

The figures, the facts, actually point up its limits.

Marine Le Pen, in the first round of voting this year got 24%, against her dad’s 14.5% when she was 19. That’s a 65% gain and puts her in comfortable second-place. Looking at it another way is to say the National Front was able to get 9.5% more of the national share over the 30 years of trouble — a little less stunning.

It is possible to opine that the reaction could intensify – the ball, once rolling, might really speed up – but once again it is useful to check some more facts.

In the first round of voting on 23 April, roughly and historically grouping the parties gives this perspective.

The charismatic and avowedly socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who got 19.5% of votes) might be seen as an inheritor of the French Communist Party, which had strong electoral support from workers and intellectuals, settling around 20-25% for nearly a century. The Socialist Party, unpopular in government, had one of those wipe-outs that large parties do endure (such as Labor in Australia, the Progressive Conservatives in Canada) getting  6.5%. Together with small "allies" in the elections, this notional left "bloc" was pushing towards 30%.

The conservative Republicans, who had been expected to win until their candidate got into a scandal, received 20% but also with small parties on their side of the fence, assembled about 25%.

So traditional left and right might be said to have come first and second but only marshalled 55% between them.

In third place in this extrapolation of rough numbers, came Emmanuel Macron, a species of yuppie, a tempered neo-liberal still expressing faith in global markets who does also have a place in the traditional alignment of forces, in two ways. Very roughly, he follows on from the Radicals of left and right, something like the British Liberals, hangovers from 19th Century politics in France. In the 2012 presidential elections, Francois Bayrou was drawing on this centrist base, getting 9%, down from 18% five years before. Macron might even find some like-mindedness among the 30 centrist members of the National Assembly, out of 577 — a better starting point than Le Pen, with two members there. Both these front-runners would be counting on a tough run with the major parties in the Assembly elections this June. A further point of history is that Macron as president would, broadly speaking, take after another, at least nominal, centrist as President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. When the Gaullist President Georges Pompidou died in office in 1974, Giscard’s party were allies of the Gaullists, and it was their turn, to take a turn.

A second aspect of the Macron constituency is the obvious presence in his numbers of support from both Socialist Party and Republican voters, who changed over, but in the middle term might just be on loan. With both major party candidates on the nose, there’d be some tactical voting in these numbers.

Marine Le Pen with 21% has faced the task of moving from an extreme position to get broader support, staging a break-out that Jean-Marie Le Pen could not achieve in 1988, locked up with no friends. The figures tell a story that there is nothing new under the sun; that the players today are inheritors and, as always, much of the present can be understood from the past. 

The one break with that orthodox way of seeing things is the increase in the Le Pen vote. It has been fairly slow, but constantly well fed by the tensions of a slow economy in painful transition; linked problems over immigration, now aggravated by terrorist acts in the streets, theatres and cafes; and the venality of careerists and crooks pushing out honest believers in the traditional political parties.

Dr Lee Duffield is a senior journalism lecturer at Queensland University of Technology and a veteran political reporter.

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