I should have seen it coming. A few weeks ago, I asked a French friend why Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate for the presidency, had such difficulty connecting with the voters. "They just don't like him," my friend shrugged, as the French do. Worthy and whiny, and with that pursed-lips seriousness that the French think characteristic of Protestants like him, Jospin proved incapable of inspiring his natural constituency.
But even given Jospin's weakness as a candidate, it was still a shock when he got fewer votes in the first round of the election than Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front. Le Pen will now meet President Jacques Chirac--a mainstream conservative--in a runoff on May 5. The National Front's success, wrote the editor of Le Monde last week, has "wounded" and "humiliated" France. Le Pen won't become President; Chirac is all but guaranteed to win the runoff in a landslide, as many supporters of the left, holding their noses, rally to his standard. But the success of the far right, with its nationalist, protectionist and anti-immigrant platform, poses some uncomfortable questions. What explains Le Pen's support?
To an extent, he benefited from France's electoral laws, which allow multiple candidates in the first round. Jospin received just over 16% of the vote, compared with nearly 17% for Le Pen and 20% for Chirac. Other candidates of the left, together with the Greens, gathered nearly 27%. Just as some Democrats blamed Ralph Nader for Al Gore's failure in 2000, so Jospin's supporters can blame the comrades who siphoned votes away from him. Still, the question remains: Why did so many voters desert the mainstream candidates? How about: because they are bored stiff with them. Chirac first served as Prime Minister in--this is not a misprint--1974. Jospin has been a leading light in the Socialist Party since 1973. Imagine being asked to choose, this year, between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford: you'd look elsewhere too.
Moreover, the nature of French politics has changed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, says Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution, French elections "used to mean something." They presented a choice between those who believed in capitalism and those who wanted to end it. But in the past decade the differences between political parties have become attenuated, with left and right squashed together in a moderate, neoliberal middle. Western Europe in general has become "postpolitical." Rather than argue about politics, modern Europeans spend their time wondering who'll win the soccer Champions League and worrying whether to spend the long summer vacation in Phuket or Goa. Voter apathy is widespread; last year's British elections had the lowest turnout since 1918. In France the 72% turnout last week was the lowest since the modern constitution was adopted in 1958. It's often the more moderate voters who stay home, which means that candidates and parties once considered extreme do better than expected.
But none of these explanations quite capture the nature of Le Pen's success. He is not a new face (he first ran for the presidency in 1974), and the nature of his politics is well known. Le Pen is a racist, equal-opportunity bigot, as happy to offend Jews as Arabs. Why did the citizens of the country that likes to think of itself as the most civilized nation on earth give him more support than ever?