24 April 2007

The French election

The first round of voting for the French Presidency produced the following results:

Sarkozy (moderate right) 31%
Royal (moderate left) 25%
Bayrou (centrist) 18%
Le Pen (far right) 11%

The remaining votes went to various minor candidates, mostly far-left. In accordance with the French system, the top two vote-getters will advance to the second round two weeks later.

What is one to make of this? First, while 11% may seem to be frighteningly high for an extremist candidate, this is actually down from Le Pen's first-round showing of 18% in the previous French Presidential election. Le Pen and his party present a pretty ugly spectacle, with a history of anti-Semitism, irresponsible rhetoric, and xenophobic isolationism. I don't believe for a moment that 18%, or 11%, or any significant percentage of the French would actually want to see him as President.

But France, like most western European countries, suffers from the awkward condition of having a gigantic problem that the consensus of the political elites has declared unacceptable to discuss: the problem of a large, violent, menacing Muslim minority. It's hard for Americans, with our great diversity of media and political views, to imagine how narrow and limited the political consensus in western Europe is, or how successful the elites have generally been at defining the limits of acceptable debate; Bruce Bawer's book While Europe Slept is the best exposition I've seen of this issue.

As repellent as Le Pen is, he does at least stand outside the elite consensus; he talks (if crudely) about the issue no one else will talk about. As such, he represents a protest vote for the fed-up citizenry (I think a similar phenomenon is also developing in Britain). When he got 18% in the previous election, the respectable media predictably flew into hysterics, but smarter politicians got the message. During the current campaign, Sarkozy and Royal both, to varying degrees, pushed the theme of law and order and reining in the thugs. Sarkozy also spoke about the importance of "national identity". Neither candidate made much use of the dreaded M-word, but they didn't have to. In the context of France's current situation, everyone knew what they meant.

And so Le Pen's vote shrank considerably. Faced with this much evidence that last election's protest vote had gotten the message across to the elite, at least to some extent, many of the French felt less need to repeat it. Even so, 11% still voted for Le Pen. The ultimate winner had better make sure that rhetoric is translated into reality.

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