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when Lionel Jospin underestimated the threat of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s FN

All presidential election campaigns have iconic moments, be they incidents or twists and turns. As voters are called upon to nominate their president on April 24, France 24 returns to one of these significant episodes: April 17, 2002. Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin is amused by the idea of ​​not qualifying for the second April 21 return. And yet Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front will ruin his presidential ambitions.

End of the presidential campaign, April 17, 2002. Four days before the first round, the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, relaxed and smiling, lends himself to the game of political fiction with the journalist John Paul Lepers. The latter challenges him: “Imagine for a moment, Mr. Prime Minister – Mr. Candidate – that you are not in the second round. Who would you vote for?

Surprised by the question, the candidate throws his head back as he laughs. After a short pause, he replies: “No, I have a normal imagination, but still tempered by reason. So…” And the journalist continues: “So it’s impossible?” “Let’s not say that, but it seems pretty unlikely to me, huh? Fine. So maybe we can move on to the next question,” Lionel Jospin finally chimes in with a smile.


Exactly twenty years ago, even 96 hours before the fateful elections, it was still unthinkable for the current Prime Minister, as well as for most people, to imagine that the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen could be in the second round of the presidential election. After all, Jean-Marie Le Pen was the man convicted of calling the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of World War II history. Voters would obviously sideline him for that. The cataclysm that would shape history was yet to come.

The popular Lionel Jospin was coming out of a five-year coexistence with Jacques Chirac during which he had approved socially progressive measures such as the 35-hour work week. In April 2002, popular wisdom and all the polls put him in the second round against the incumbent president for the rematch of the 1995 left-right clash.

The sequel went down in history. On April 21, Jean-Marie Le Pen (16.86%) championed the French extreme right for the first time in the second round of presidential elections. The Front National candidate will face outgoing President Jacques Chirac (19.88%) at the top of the vote, with Lionel Jospin finishing third (16.18%) less than 200,000 votes short of second place.

With a historic abstention rate (28.4%) and a record number of candidates (16), the scores of those classified in the second round were unusually low. To this was added a dispersion of votes due to the multiple candidacies of the left, and an electorate as confident as Lionel Jospin.

“Thunder” of the extreme right

This surprise result shook France. The socialist candidate too. On the night of the first round, a stern and closed-faced Lionel Jospin announced that he was “retiring from political life” to the loud cries of his supporters. Comparing what has just happened to “a thunderclap”, the disgraced socialist also describes the advance of the extreme right as “a very worrying sign for France and for our democracy”.

That same night, young people spontaneously took to the streets to protest against the extreme right. The next morning, the front pages of the newspapers were unmistakable: “Le Pen’s bomb” (France Soir), “The scare” (Le Parisien), “The earthquake” (Le Figaro), “France does not deserve this” (Humanity) or “No” (Liberation).

Almost all the left-wing candidates in the first round ask their supporters to hold their noses and vote for Jacques Chirac in the second round to block the far right. The demonstrations against Le Pen are in full swing and on May 1 – five days before the second round – some 1.3 million people demonstrate in the streets. A record mobilization in France since the Liberation, at the end of the Second World War. On banners across the country, the message is clear: not this time and never again.

On May 5, the broad consensus -baptized as “Republican Front”- against the FN is redeemed: Jacques Chirac obtains an overwhelming victory (82.2%) against Jean-Marie Le Pen (17.8%). A score worthy of a banana republic obtained in the name of republican democracy. Disaster is averted, at least for a time.

Towards a trivialization of the National Front and its ideas

Most French voters and France’s allies abroad were not the only ones relieved to see the prospect of a far-right president evaporate. Jean-Marie Le Pen himself admitted later, in 2014, that “he would not have been prepared to take power” if he had acceded to the highest state position, because the National Front did not have at that time the “machinery of power “necessary to run the country.

In 2007, the 78-year-old anti-immigration candidate ran for the fifth time in a presidential election, but without achieving the same success: he finished fourth in the first round (10.44% of the vote). The UMP candidate, Nicolás Sarkozy, who had managed to divert the votes from the FN, is well ahead of the first round (31.1%).

But this election is far from ending the adventure of the extreme right in the race for the French presidential elections. The 2002 election was only the beginning of a long road towards the trivialization of the National Front. A normalization began practically the day after the re-election of Jacques Chirac.

Traditional politicians, beginning with Nicolas Sarkozy, have sought to neutralize the electoral potential of the extreme right by integrating the concerns of FN sympathizers into their political strategies. The FN sought, for its part, to soften its image and create the necessary government machinery to govern.

After the 2002 elections, whose electoral campaign was largely marked by the issue of insecurity, Jacques Chirac appointed Nicolas Sarkozy as Minister of the Interior. He made a name for himself as “France’s first policeman,” fighting crime and undocumented immigrants, and made banning the burqa or expelling Roma national priorities after he was elected in 2007.

But the National Front voters’ attraction to Nicolas Sarkozy is fading fast. Le Pen’s statement that “people prefer the original to the copy” is valid when he does not respond to hardliners. “Uncontrollable waves of immigration” explode in the face of the man who has shaped immigration policy for a decade. In 2012, he was not re-elected, in favor of the socialist candidate François Hollande.

Meanwhile, the National Front resumed its rise: Marine Le Pen – who replaced her father – won 17.9% of the vote in the first round, a record for the far-right party. He then finished at the top of the vote in the 2014 European elections, leading elected officials to his “power machine”. In 2017 she repeated the performance of his father, leading the extreme right to the second round of the presidential elections against Emmanuel Macron. And, like his father, he leans heavily (33.9%) against the center-right candidate (66.1%). Five years later, the same two politicians face each other again in a duel that is announced to be even more close.

Crossing the Rubicon

The Jean Jaurès Foundation stated in 2021 that the “cordon sanitaire” against the extreme right began to “erode” at the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency and that “the Republican Front has been fragmented for several years”. The think tank cites several examples to support its point: in 2012, when Nicolas Sarkozy crossed the Rubicon by judging Marine Le Pen as “compatible with the Republic”; in 2015, when the political bureau of the UMP acted with the strategy of “neither Republican Front nor National Front” during partial legislative elections. In 2017, the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon did not speak out directly in favor of a Macron vote against Marine Le Pen.

The far-right candidate has been “demonizing” her father’s party for a decade. After assuming the presidency in 2011, she fired what she considered “anti-Semites, extremists and extreme right-wingers”. She also changed the name of the National Front, which became the National Group.

In 2022, he got a boost from far-right newcomer Éric Zemmour. The latter, with a hard political line, diverted attention and made Marine Le Pen more efficient in her seduction operation. She knew how to present herself mainly as the candidate of purchasing power while making her far-right references be forgotten, but very present in her program: prohibition of wearing the veil in public space, end of citizenship by birth or greater abolition of social benefits. for foreigners.

The relationship with the extreme right has also changed in twenty years, its traditional concerns have moved from the margins to the center of public debate. In 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen during the between-two-rounds. “In the face of intolerance and hatred, there is no compromise, there is no compromise of principles, there is no possible debate,” he argued. In 2021, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin discussed “Islamic separatism” with Marine Le Pen during prime time on a public service channel. Nicolas Sarkozy’s former protégé who had just published a book on the subject was entitled to: “I read his book carefully. And, barring a few inconsistencies, I could have put my name on it.” Gérald Darmanin, for her part, accused Marine Le Pen of having become “soft” with her “demonization strategy”: “You should take vitamins. I don’t find you tough enough.”

In February 2021, sociologist Ugo Palheta deciphered the exchange for France 24: “They discussed for two hours the place of Muslims in French society, while we are experiencing both a health crisis and an economic crisis. The government is trying to regain confidence of the population by adopting much of the vocabulary and proposals of the extreme right, in a brazen attempt to win votes. That is what Macron is doing today with this strategy, which starts from the principle that the working classes are more concerned about identity problems when essentially they are suffering from the economic crisis. The problem is that the more we advance in the field of the extreme right, the more it advances”.

A few weeks later, the Liberation newspaper fired red bullets at Macron’s allies and ran its front page on the exasperation of left-wing voters ready to break up the sacrosanct Republican Front if Macron and Le Pen met in the second round.

On April 24, it is indeed the scenario of 2017 that repeats itself. But this time, the polls announce a close duel between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Lionel Jospin declared, during the interval between the two rounds, that they would vote for the outgoing president. The students themselves express their discontent with this duel and threaten to abstain. His slogan: #NiMacronNiLePen. Marine Le Pen projects herself. She has already announced that her father would be invited to her investiture at the Elysee in case of victory next Sunday. The RN candidate would thus put an end to 20 years of waiting to see a Le Pen at the Elysée.

This article was adapted by Jean-Luc Mounier. The original version can be read here.

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