t is once again time to think the unthinkable. The liberal pundits of the American media and their international fellow travelers are unanimous in their wisdom: It is impossible for Jean-Marie Le Pen to be elected president of France on May 5. That can only mean one thing: Le Pen can win.
Let us clarify. As that stickler for precise usage and meaning Abraham Lincoln would have put it, to say that Le Pen "can" win is not to say that he "will." Nor is it to say that it is probable that he will win. Incumbent President Jacques Chirac may well indeed win a consecutive second term as president of France as literally all commentators have confidently predicted. But a careful study of the voting patterns in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday, April 21 shows that a Chirac victory is by no means the done deal that everybody has taken for granted.
For when you look at the low voter turnout on April 21 and the protest fragmentation of those who did vote, you make two very striking and unexpected discoveries. A lot of those who did vote for protest candidates on the Left last Sunday look much more likely to vote for Le Pen than Chirac next time. And Le Pen stands a good chance of attracting a lot more of the stay-at-home votes from last Sunday than anyone expects as well.
First, take a look at the actual voting data from last Sunday's first round election. Chirac polled a miserably low 19.88 percent, Le Pen a surprisingly high 16.86 percent. But Le Pen's core vote will be even higher next time as another 2.34 percent voted for a rival extreme-right splinter candidate Bruno Megret, Le Pen's former top lieutenant who bolted his former leader's National Front a few years ago. As ideology remains thicker than personal grudges on the French extreme right, those votes will certainly go to Le Pen the next time round. That will give him a core vote of over 19 percent, within a single percentage point of Chirac's.
Next, look at the complex break-up of the Left-wing vote. The Left in France is far from the spent force it appeared from Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's miserable 16.18 percent showing, two-thirds of one percent behind Le Pen. In all, the potpourri of left candidates won a combined total of 44 percent of the vote. So, 28 percent of the total vote, or almost two thirds of the total left vote, went to other candidates rather than Jospin. That 28 percent and how it votes is going to be crucial to deciding who will be the next president of France and the fate of the Fifth Republic.
Conventional wisdom that is to say, Tom Friedman, Jim Hoagland, and their friends say it will swing unanimously behind President Chirac. But conventional wisdom, as is so often the case, is likely here to be wildly wrong.
Conventional wisdom assumes that because those 28 percent of total voters on April 21 voted Left wing they will therefore look with disgust and horror at Le Pen as a Right-wing extreme nationalist, or even proto-fascist. They will, it is therefore assumed, rally in overwhelming numbers behind Chirac and sweep him back in triumph to the Elysee Palace.
But those 28 percent of voters not only did not vote for Chirac, they also did not vote for Jospin. And the reason they did not vote for Jospin was because they thought he was too much like Chirac.
The two men had shared power in a cozy cohabitation relationship over the past five years and those 28 percent of voters did not like it. Although France grew steadily in prosperity in those years, core unemployment remained troubling high, crime spiraled out of control to terrifying new highs and popular disquiet over France's huge 7 million Algerian immigrant population continued to grow. Most of all, those 28 percent of voters disliked the fact that Jospin was Bill Clinton without the entertainment value and that he was closer to Tom Friedman than Karl Marx.
The popular perception in France albeit in many respects a misleading one is that it is the victim of rampant globalization and that Mickey Mouse and Mickey D have trampled Voltaire and Edith Piaf under foot. There is also a widespread sense that Chirac and Jospin have sold out the national interest, not just to international globalizing corporations but to the 15-nation European Union's governing commission in Brussels.
There is a sweeping irony to those assessments and a remarkable amount of backhanded poetic justice in them too. For Chirac and Jospin have enthusiastically fostered the deepening and further bureaucratic centralization of the EU precisely because they want to shape it into a global, anti-American bloc with high protectionist trading barriers. But in their enthusiasm for doing this, and molding the EU into a magnified tool for French interests on the world stage, they have heedlessly diluted French national sovereignty and ordinary French voters do not like it. They want to be led by a Gallic version of Margaret Thatcher, not a protectionist, EU mutant offshoot of Kofi Annan.
So that 28 percent of voters who rejected Jospin in the first round because they thought he was too much like Chirac are unlikely to put it mildly to swing behind Chirac now. On the contrary, they are far more likely to rally round Le Pen because he has unabashedly championed restoring the French national currency, the franc, and putting national interests ahead of the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels as well as the imagined sinister corporate American masterminds in New York and Washington.
And for those who claim that the French Far Left cannot possibly back Le Pen because they believe him to be an Evil Fascist, the answer is simple. The French far Left has always been made up of morons.
Mass tactical defection to Le Pen from the fragmented Left is likely from the three main groups among them. These are: the supporters of former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the Trotskyites, and the Communists. None of these groups is likely to take Le Pen seriously as a credible long-term fascist or proto-fascist master of France. The Trotskyites and Communists are far more likely to follow the tactics of the German Communists in the 1920s-early 30s Weimar Republic when they made common cause with the Nazis to topple the middle class, moderate, democratic republic, and destroy the mainstream parties like the Catholic Center and the Social Democrats who supported it.
Those tactics backed fired catastrophically on the extreme Left in 1930s Germany. But 1930s Germany happened a long time ago seven decades ago, to be precise. And it is a myth that, as leftist British and French intellectuals believe, only boorish, superficial Americans have no political historical sense. In fact, of course, American voters consistently show a preference for moderation in all things and a very strong historical instinct for stability in their voting patterns. It is the French electorate who, every 30 or 40 years ago, gets restive at the thought of enjoying too much happiness, prosperity and stability and makes like Les Miserables.
The Fifth Republic is now 44 years old and it has outlived the presidency of its founding father Charles De Gaulle by 33 years. C'est le temps.
Also, the Fifth Republic may be about to turn into the Third. For most of its long, hapless length, bookended between the humiliating defeats by Germany in 1870-71 and 1940 it was bedeviled by the passion of its extreme Left parties to make tactical, short-term common cause with the extreme Right on the hope of pulverizing the moderate, bourgeois, middle class and democratic center. (Hitler and Stalin did not invent the tactical alliance of Communism and Fascism against democracy in 1939. They learned it from the French.)
This kind of cynical cross-voting is likely to prove especially attractive as a spoiler tactic to the Communists. They have dwindled under the prosperous, stable Fifth Republic from being one of the largest parties in France for decades now to a derisory 4.5 percent of the vote. But if that 4.5 percent were thrown in Round Two to Le Pen, it might prove to have more decisive political impact than all the big, impressive but futile 40 percent plus votes for the Reds did decades ago. The same calculation applies for the same reason to the Trotskyites and for slightly different reasons to Chevenement's supporters.
Chevenement is far to the left of Jospin and, for that matter, of late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. Over the past decade, that political position never paid off for him. But if France becomes destabilized and radicalized, with the Left regrouping in a hurry and seeking to radicalize and revitalize itself to meet the unexpected challenge of a President Le Pen, then Chevenment could plausibly present himself to them as L'Homme De L'Heure the Man of the Hour.
Even if the Communists and Trotskyites do not deliberately urge their voters to back Le Pen, many of them will certainly do so anyway. The April 21 First Round vote already showed Le Pen's unexpected ability but one he shared with such crowd pleasers as Hitler and Mussolini to pull in support from working class constituencies convinced that he understands their concerns far better than the Nattering Nabobs of the Left who claim to speak for them. Le Pen's 19 percent showing in the working-class stronghold of Lille was proof of that. If he can pull in that kind of supporter when is running against real Socialist and Communist candidates, just think what he can do when his only opponent is Chirac.
Chirac cannot even assume as he probably does that the large numbers of voters who stayed at home on April 21 will flock out to support him in Round Two. After all, they all stayed at home because they did not want either him or Jospin to win. Some of them indeed will turn out to keep Le Pen out of the Elysee. But others among them will also turn out because, for the first time they realize Le Pen can actually win.
Those voters were not turned off by Le Pen or by the Communists or Trotskyites either, for that matter. They were turned off because they were convinced that the only real choice they had was between Chirac and Jospin, and that was no choice at all.
Now Le Pen has unexpectedly given them a choice. The principle of voter consolidation that always works for the final two candidates in a Fifth Republic presidential run off vote will now favor him at least as much as it favors Chirac.
In some respects, it can be expected to favor Le Pen more so. He is a fresh face, if not on the national scene, then certainly as a prospective presidential candidate. He is a dynamic, at times even electrifying campaigner. Chirac, is an old face all too familiar, burned out and tired. He was never charismatic even at his best. And his campaign performance in Round One made Al Gore look electrifying.
Ironically, if Chirac does indeed go down to defeat against Le Pen, it will be because, after all his sneers at American culture and political practices, he did not practice globalization in the one area it could have helped him, calling Karl Rove, Dick Morris, or James Carville for help.
As it is, Chirac finds himself backed into an ironic corner indeed. His only real hope of winning is to mobilize the moderate Socialist hard-core supporters of Jospin behind him. Even with them, his victory will be by no means assured.
But he must have that Socialist 16 percent who voted last Sunday along with his own disastrously low 19.88 percent to have a stable core of 35-36 percent if he wants to be in striking distance of victory at all. And even then he will face an uphill fight to woo at least half of the stay-at-homes who left him in the lurch in Round One.
Chirac can do it. After all, even the CW of American media pundits is not always wrong merely most of the time. But it will not be easy. And if Chirac thinks his triumph is a done deal, he will plunge himself into humiliating defeat and his nation into the kind of chaos and crisis it has not known for two generations. For Le Pen can win.