French far-right soars in presidential vote

Front National demonstrationThe anti-immigrant far right emerged as a potentially major force in French politics with a record showing by its candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round of presidential elections.

Le Pen, who rails against European unity and what she says is the Islamization of France, took third place with more than 18 percent of the vote.

Her backers could play a critical role in the final round of elections May 6, helping determine whether conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy sinks or survives in his battle with Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, who held a thin lead in the first-round vote.

Le Pen wants to return the National Front party founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen to the legislature, and is now looking to make a mark in June parliamentary elections.

“The first round isn’t the end but the beginning,” she said in what amounted to a victory speech. “Whatever happens in 15 days, the battle of France has just begun.”

Marine Le Pen, 43, in her first presidential election, has tried to soften the image of the National Front, stigmatized as racist and anti-Semitic under the helm of her father, its long-time standard-bearer.

Le Pen’s first-round performance went beyond her projections – but not her hopes. She said in an interview with The Associated Press last week that a surprise could be in store. However, she also said she would consider the best showing by her father a decade ago – just under 16.8 percent – to be her standard for success.

Marine Le Pen maintains the party’s anti-immigrant bent but uses it to target Muslim immigration which she claims is becoming a scourge on France, akin to hordes of Muslims bent on replacing the French culture with that of Islam.

She has said from the start that Sarkozy is a has-been incapable of winning the election. “We are the sole viable opposition to the liberal left,” she said.

Sarkozy has kept Marine Le Pen’s following squarely in his radar. Under Sarkozy’s watch, France banned the wearing of burqa-like Islamic face veils on French streets, and he took up far-right themes in his presidential campaigns in 2007 and this year.

Now, he needs those voters more than ever, and tried to woo them as he spoke after results were announced Sunday night. “In a world moving so fast, preserving (our) way of life is the central question of this election,” he said, stressing the need to respect borders and control the immigrant influx.

Le Pen predicted a rising arc for her party in the AP interview. “I think we’ll be in a situation to govern within 10 years,” she said.

Associated Press, 23 April 2012

See also Huffington Post, 22 April 2012