Observing French politics in the run-up to next spring’s presidential elections is like watching one of those slow-motion films of controlled car crashes in which a dummy and its vehicle are rammed into a wall. Nicolas Sarkozy is the dummy, who will make one last ungainly gesticulation as he lurches into catastrophe, and the coalition of liberals, centrists, free-marketeers, pro-Americans and careerists that carried him to power in 2007 is splintering as the laws of political aerodynamics wrench it apart.
Two words explain this outcome: Le Pen. In 2002, the now governing party, the UMP, was created between the two rounds of the presidential election to support Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen. Ten years later, the UMP (same acronym, different name) will collapse because of the appointment in January of Marine Le Pen as her father’s successor. As Le Pen senior joked at the time, ‘The nasty scapegoat has been replaced by a lovable little kid’. Her election is the product of a long-term strategy, conceived by the FN’s brightest minds — and there are many of them — to de-demonise the party.
This has worked spectacularly. Marine Le Pen is almost as brilliant a speaker as her father, and much more likeable. Some of her one-liners have left the political class gasping with envy. At dinner on Monday, I found myself chatting to one of François Mitterrand’s prime ministers, a lifelong Socialist, who quoted admiringly Marine’s tart denunciation of free trade, always a popular cause in France: ‘Globalisation means getting slaves to make things abroad to sell to unemployed people here.’ ‘She’s brilliant,’ exclaimed the former boss of Matignon, ‘and it’s very dangerous.’ Another good barb of Le Pen’s was her speculation about what ‘hormonal rush’ must have led Sarkozy, a man who did his military service in a Paris office, to launch two wars in a month, in Libya and Ivory Coast.