France: the race for the presidency is thrown wide open

Could Marine Le Pen of the National Front win it?

Socialist presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn has vehemently denied sex-related charges laid against him in New York, yet the BBC's Gavin Hewitt notes that, in all probability, "he is politically dead". 

Polls have suggested Strauss-Kahn, the current IMF head, would have made a strong bid - almost certainly performing better than rival Socialists like current leader, Martine Aubry, former candidate Segoline Royale or Francois Holland, a former First Secretary of the Socialist Party.  Strauss-Kahn was a political heavyweight - a rare figure from the Left capable of defeating incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, newly reinvigorated by decisive foreign initiatives in Libya.

Marine Le Pen, the new National Front leader has been gloating in the wings as the story unfolds in New York. Hewit says she views Strauss-Kahn as representing "the elite that she maintains has lost touch with ordinary French working people. He was the classic insider - a corporate lawyer who served as finance minister and prepared France to give up the franc for the euro. She also reminded voters that she was a female leader when she said: "The truth, and everyone knows it, is that Paris has buzzed for months if not years in the political and journalistic milieu about the rather pathological relationship that Mr Strauss-Kahn maintains toward women.""

The Front National (FN) was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, in true French style where so often parties are formed around the personalities and policies of one charismatic individual. The FN achieved electoral breakthrough in parliamentary elections of 1986 when it achieved 9.7% of the vote.

By 2002 Le Pen's support had peaked at 16.86%, when he hit that figure in the first round of the presidential election, beating the Socialist into third place and precipitating a third-round run-off against incumbent President Jacques Chirac. In the third round, Le Pen's support rose to 17.8%, but he was trounced.  His vote dropped in 2007, when only exceeding 10% in that year's presidential contest against the winner, Nicolas Sarkozy.

His daughter, Marine Le Pen, who's achieved stellar opinion poll ratings, replaced him as FN Leader earlier this year. By March, The Guardian was reporting that Marine was more popular than President Sarkozy.  Her estimated support was 23%, with Sarkozy and Socialist leader Martine Aubry behind on 21% apiece. Strauss-Kahn, at that stage still to throw his hat into the ring, was deemed a popular prospect.

Could Europe experience in 2012 the arrival in power of a far-right party?  And what would be the effects on the European project, the Schengen Agreement, and even the single currency, of a Eurosceptic, immigration-averse government in Paris?  Would there be Continent-wide horror, or would other far-right movements and their supporters across Europe feel emboldened?

The legal charges against Strauss-Kahn might have dire consequences for Strauss-Kahn personally, for the stewardship of the IMF and, indeed, monumental implications for Europe.  It wasn't long ago that Sarkozy was beginning to be regarded as a lame-duck president.  His chances of re-election looked poor.  Should NATO's involvement become bogged-down in a Libyan stalemate, the shine will come off Sarkozy's decisive political manoevre.  And the presidency could be up for grabs.  In such circumstances a President Le Pen doesn't look so unlikely.

Update May 16, 2011:  Dominque Strauss-Kahn has been denied US$1m bail on the grounds that he might flee to France.  After America's experience with Roman Polanski, convicted of statutory rape in the US, who fled to France which refused US requests for his return to face the sentence, I'm unsurprised at the Judge's decision in the case of Strauss-Kahn.  France won't extradite its citizens but is prepared to consider permitting a prosecution to proceed on French soil if so requested.  In the instance of Polanski, the US didn't take up France's offer.  So Strauss-Kahn is holed up in custody in New York for the time being.  How the Mighty sometimes fall!

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