My apologies to faithful readers for the long absence of news on this blog. I've been traveling in France and away from my computer. Although it is possible to blog, as I'm doing now, with my tablet, it is scarcely inviting. Nevertheless, I am compelled to report the news of a new IFOP poll, which shows for the first time the Front National ahead of all other parties in expressed intentions to vote in the next European election. The FN is at 24%, the UMP at 22, and the PS at 19.
No one will be surprised by these results. It has been clear for some time that the FN is gaining strength. The irony, of course, is that the FN is the most anti-European of French parties, but that may well be the reason for its surge to the top in this particular poll, since for many voters the European elections are mainly a chance to vent hostility against the Union. The European Parliament having little real power, a protest vote in this kind of election risks nothing.
Nevertheless, the results show an increased willingness of voters to profess open support for the FN, so much so that IFOP is no longer correcting for a supposed "Bradley effect" in FN polling. The "de-demonization" of the FN is complete.
The question now is whether anything still places a ceiling on FN support, and I think the answer must still be "yes." Even if the FN becomes the largest party in France, which is not impossible, a substantial majority still believes that it remains beyond the Pale of respectability and will not for it. Nevertheless, the "FN effect" is already obviouus in the decomposition of the Right. Fillon has lately joined his rivals in attempting to appeal to far right voters. Even the recent realignment in the center, with Bayrou joining forces with longtime rival Borloo, reflects a determination that the "center-right" has moved definitively toward the far right, perhaps opening a place (or a black hole?) in the center.
But do the parties continue to matter in the way they used to? With the UMP now ready to join the PS in choosing its presidential candidate by primary, party discipline and organization will no doubt be trumped, as in the United States, by individual entrepreneurship, with each candidate obliged to run from a local power base and to raise funds independent of the parties.
Meanwhile, some observers attribute to Hollande a strategy not unlike Mitterrand's toward the FN: the stronger it becomes, the more it divides the Right, leaving him, despite his desperate unpopularity, as the only "republican" recourse. This is of course a dangerous game. I've talked to a few people in Paris with government connections, and they all reflect Hollande's perhaps overly optimistic faith in an imminent economic recovery, which will rescue him from the difficult pass in which he finds himself. Perhaps they have evidence to back their hopes that is not yet public. I am less sanguine. But the impression I get is that Hollande believes he has very little room for maneuver until economic conditions improve, and he is unwilling to take any risks to improve them on his own. He is counting, like a peasant, on a change in the weather--a fitting attitude for a man who is governing, as one sage observer of French politics put it to me, like the "president of Correze," as if this were still the Third Republic or, worse, the Fourth.