The French Exception: The Appeal of Extremism

In reading the anti-Sarkozy dossier in this week’s l’Express over the weekend, I was struck by how the peculiarities of the French political landscape make it particularly vulnerable to populist fallout from the financial crisis. There’s a depth of support here on both extremes of the political spectrum — whether the extreme-right of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party (FN), or the far-left embodied by the eloquent Trotskyite mailman, Olivier Besancenot, and his New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) — that is abhorrent in the former case and aberrant in the latter.

What that means in practical terms, though, is that the nationalist xenophobia and nationalist protectionism that usually accompany times of financial crisis will both enjoy a sympathetic sounding board here. As l’Express points out, Sarkozy has already begun shedding the traditional FN constituency that helped elect him in 2007. And although the Socialist Party has moved past its divisive leadership battle with surprising speed and agility, the current peace is a political one. The fundamental ideological divisions remain unresolved, significantly weakening the party’s cohesiveness.

Which means that the two political currents that stand to gain from any resurgence of extremism — other than the extremists, that is — are the center right and the Gaullist right. Two years ago, that would have meant François Bayrou for the former, and Dominique de Villepin for the latter. But the emergence of the Sarkozy-aligned centrist splinter group, the New Center — led by the very, very, very ambitious Minister of Defense Hervé Morin — now complicates the picture for Bayrou. And former Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s gradual rehabilitaiton after a corruption conviction put him out of the running for the 2007 contest could have the same effect for Villepin (who faces his own legal challenges).

The next presidential election is a long way off (2012), and the actual impact of the crisis might not live up to the dire forecasts. But while I don’t think the far left has any real chance of surviving the first round of voting, the FN has already demonstrated its ability to benefit from a divided left and confused center to do so. Which means that come 2012, depending on who inherits the party from the aging Le Pen, France might very well be facing the possibility of a repeat performance of the shocking and humiliating first-round results of 2002.