Nationalism looks set to remain on trend in France

Marine Le Pen Image copyright AFP
Image caption Marine Le Pen won 18% of the first round vote

PARIS: The first round of the French elections has provided a salutary lesson in the effects of the economic crisis in a Western democracy.

There has been polarisation to the extremes, a refusal by many to engage with the country's basic economic dilemmas, taking refuge instead in fundamentalist ideas about the country's ills, and the search for scapegoats.

During the past few weeks, the leading candidates have often played to the viscera with messages about immigration, national identity, and the evils of the international financial markets.

We are not yet back in the 1930s, but this type of campaigning, in which candidates often shun economic complexities in favour of vote mobilising emotive slogans might just get us there.

The degree to which France has polarised can be judged by comparing Sunday's votes with those of the first round in 2007. The country's starting point five years ago, it should be remembered, was a little to the right of centre.

Nicolas Sarkozy's share of the national vote has dropped from 31% to 27.2% on Sunday, and Francois Bayrou's by more than half to 9.1%. From the centre these millions of voters migrated to Marine Le Pen whose share swelled to more than 18% (her father got 10.4% in 2007), and some to the socialists or Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

No wonder Angela Merkel on Monday said she was worried about polarisation.

Immigration claims

Faced with this challenge, Mr Sarkozy has tried to respond with messages about checking immigration, regaining control of the country's borders (talking about a possible opt out from Europe's Schengen agreement) and dawn raids on suspected Islamic militants.

Despite being one of the authors of Europe's Fiscal Compact (which aims to enforce public spending limits on EU members by law) the president has tried to insist that France's welfare state will be safe in his hands.

The candidates who have done well have been those who have suggested that France does not have to choose between its "social model" and international competitiveness, and stirred up their followers with more emotive stuff.

Ms Le Pen has talked about escaping the entire EU budgetary regime by leaving the euro, and blamed many of the country's problems, such as rising unemployment, on unchecked immigration.

As for the left, both Francois Hollande and Mr Melenchon have essentially proposed borrowing their way out of recession, while condemning the evils of the international financial markets. Indeed, take apart the speeches at Sarkozy, Le Pen, Hollande, or Melenchon rallies and you will find some pretty similar themes - highly nationalistic in nature, and inveighing against the evils of globalisation or international capital.

It is only the right's stance on immigration that really marks them out.

Co-operation reduced

Now the race is down to two candidates, will this type of tub thumping give way to a more reasoned debate about whether France can still afford its way of life? Many French analysts suggest the answer is yes, and that the first round will have allowed those who are bewildered and angry to have their protest.

However, it is not that simple. Many of Ms Le Pen's voters, perhaps millions of them, are expected to abstain in the next round. Mr Sarkozy meanwhile, has not defaulted to a detailed, common sense, campaign about the economy, but has ratcheted up his right wing messages in an attempt to mobilise those Le Pen voters to support him.

What does all this tell us about the shape of European politics to come? It certainly suggests that finding agreement at the European level will be harder, and that recent trends towards more nationalistic politics will continue.

Pretty much all of the French candidates have tried to mark themselves out with voters by defining new limits on international co-operation and by emphasising that France, as a great and historic nation, can keep certain international forces at bay.

So Mr Sarkozy talks about coming out of the Schengen agreement, Ms le Pen of ditching the euro, Mr Hollande of renegotiating the EU's budgetary rules, and Mr Melenchon of sidestepping international markets or Nato's military command structure.

It's not a bright picture, and it poses uncomfortable questions about the ability of Western liberal democracies to engage with crisis head on and deal with it.