Left and Right face off in French election battle

Leader of National Front Le Pen, squares off against the leader of the Left Front, Melenchon.

Marine Le Pen France National Front 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
Marine Le Pen France National Front 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
In the aftermath of Francois Hollande’s recent victory over center-right incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy for the French presidency, both the far-left and the far-right have begun quickly repositioning themselves for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The confrontation between these two extremes is playing out most spectacularly in the poor mining town of Henin-Beaumont, in the north of France.  Henin-Beaumont is wrestling with high unemployment and industrial decline, as the European economies continue to stall under clouds of uncertainty and fear.  Unemployment here stands at 16 percent, well above the French national average of 10 percent, while life expectancy is also significantly less than the national average.
In what the French press has labeled “Le Duel,” the leader of the far-Right National Front, Marine Le Pen, is squaring off against the leader of the Left Front, Jean-Luc Melenchon, for the honor of representing the gritty, impoverished constituency in the National Assembly.
Both candidates had previously participated in the recent national elections for the presidency, but each was eliminated in the early round of voting.  As between the two, Le Pen outperformed Melenchon by a margin of 18 percent to just 11 percent.
Le Pen has much to gain in these parliamentary elections, which could see a National Front MP in the National Assembly for the first time in many years.  Her eyes are not only on her own personal victory in recession-ravaged Henin-Beaumont, but also on making significant gains among disgruntled center-right voters who had previously backed Sarkozy.
Meanwhile, the “red devil” Melenchon has much to prove.  Henin-Beaumont, reminiscent of the forlorn mining communities depicted in Emile Zola’s bitter novel, Germinal, has historically been a left-wing stronghold, represented by the Socialists.  Melenchon’s relatively new, Communist-backed party seeks to similarly displace Hollande’s Socialist party as the real party of leftist sentiment and action.
Le Pen currently leads Melenchon in the polls, but some observers suggest that after the preliminary round this Sunday, both would make the cut into the final round of voting scheduled for June 17.  After the other candidates are dropped from the ballot, the firebrand Melechon could win the seat.
The extremes of European politics differ significantly from what purports to be far-right and far-left in the US.  American political discourse and debate are much more constricted, even during these much-lambasted years of gridlock and lack of bipartisanship that have recently gripped Washington.
At the heart of most European far-right parties, such as Le Pen’s National Front, is a heightened concern over the impact of immigrants on their country and their social services.  During these times of austerity, voters can become very afraid of how limited government resources will be spent.  An “us vs. them” mentality can easily develop, especially in those towns and villages that have historically been very homogeneous.
Interestingly, on economic policy issues such as stopping the Brussels’ austerity program and adopting protectionist measures, both the far-left and the far-right are in broad agreement.  Only on hot button issues such as immigration do the two sides fall out.
Some French newspapers have focused, with a certain amount of humor, on the potential obsession that Melenchon may have developed with Le Pen after placing fourth to her in the presidential ballot.  However, the threat posed by the National Front is a serious one for the far-left, and a Le Pen victory in Henin-Beaumont, where 20% of residents are of Algerian descent and there has been a long-standing pattern over the last century of immigrants coming to work in the mines, would have serious repercussions.
Le Pen’s message of “France first” is resonating among many French voters who are put off by the failures of Sarkozy’s traditional centre right party.  Should Le Pen and the National Front party succeed in winning a handful of seats, that could be enough for it to serve as an influential block on the mainstream parties, while also winning away disgruntled Socialists and Communists from the far-left.
Melenchon’s campaign is based on the countervailing belief that the Henin-Beaumont voters are “furious but not fascists.”  As the champion of the left, Melenchon has much to prove after his controversial decision to parachute in and take on Le Pen on her own ground.  His hopes of victory depend on his ability to turn voters’ attentions away from immigrants and onto bankers and corporate fat cats who he argues have caused the financial meltdown and profited from the misery of others.
As much of Europe continues to teeter on the brink of economic collapse, the tension between the far-left and the far-right will continue to build.  The causes of this collapse, and the unraveling of the social net that has bound the working classes into the economic system for generations, will be questioned and argued over.
President Hollande faces enormous challenges as his term begins.  He, along with other national leaders of the mainstream parties, must make a compelling case to French voters that they have the means and inclination to return France to economic growth.  Otherwise, fingers will inevitably be pointed at scapegoats, of one type or another.  Both the far-right and the far-left are showing French voters that they are a ready alternative if current leaders prove inadequate to the task at hand.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.