France's traditional parties nervous ahead of EU vote
If any political party is looking forward to the EU election, it has to be the hard right, anti-EU National Front.
Headed up by the media savvy Marine Le Pen, the National Front (FN) is riding high in the polls and could scoop the most French seats in the May vote.
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It has a resolute anti-EU agenda. At an early-February press conference in the party's headquarters in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, Le Pen unveiled her European Union strategy.
"How should the European Union be improved? By making it collapse. I expect one thing only from the European system and that's for it to explode," she said.
"We have to wait for everything to fall flat on its face, while contributing to this if possible, to bring about a project of a Europe of free nations," she continued.
Though she rails at the EU as if she had never participated in it, she has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004.
Her key argument is that France has lost its sovereignty since the EU was created. This is not surprising given the ideological foundations of the National Front. Nor is her electoral platform – tighter border controls and exiting the euro currency.
But the National Front's rhetoric has taken on greater resonance in the last two years as more and more French voters seem to approve of the party.
In a poll published in January by the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, 23 percent of interviewees said they intend to vote for Marine Le Pen's party in May. The same poll put the former ruling UMP party at 21 percent and French president Francois Hollande's Socialist Party at 18 percent.
By comparison, the FN won 6.34 percent of the vote in the last EU elections in 2009, with just three seats.
For the FN, the European elections are seen as a stepping stone to full inclusion in the mainstream political landscape. The first indication of the party's electoral power will come in the municipal elections to be held later this month, although Marine Le Pen is not expected to perform strongly as the voting system is different.
The party's poll boost represents less of a growing attachment to the National Front than increasing defiance towards the EU.
Many French voters lose faith in the EU
Many French voters have lost faith in the ability of the European Union to help solve the country's economic malaise, where the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent – the highest rate since the end of 1997 – and growth is sluggish.
The National Front is not the only party hoping to capitalise on disappointment with the EU.
The co-president of the left-wing Parti de Gauche, Jean-Luc Melenchon, has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the EU. His party is currently polling at around 9 percent.
Anti-EU rhetoric reached such an extent late last year that President Francois Hollande took issue with it in his traditional New Year greeting.
"We won't build the France of tomorrow by dismantling Europe. It is by being strengthened that Europe will afford us more protection. And I won't turn a blind eye to those who deny Europe's future, who want to return to the old borders, thinking that they’ll shield them, and who want to exit the euro," he said.
Another explanation for the increasing popularity of the National Front is its opponents' weakness, and the increasing unpopularity of the current government.
Hollande still has the lowest approval rating (23 percent) ever recorded for an incumbent president. Although this represents an improvement on the record low of 15 percent in November 2013, the lowest rating since polling company IFOP began its work in 1958.
The National Front's popularity has more mainstream parties scratching their heads about what to do in response.
The problem is all the more acute because the EU vote runs the traditional risk of being an outlet for a protest vote (benefitting the FN) – that is if people bother to turn out at all.
Some analysts suggest that the abstention rate will be around 65 percent. Again this is likely to benefit Marine Le Pen whose voters are likely to be more motivated.
Meanwhile left-wing parties have a particular problem as the National Front is poaching their political territory, taking a strong stance against globalisation and speaking about the protection of working class jobs.
This has been particularly hard for Hollande's socialist party as it tries to keep traditional voters happy while adhering to budget-slashing targets set by the European Commission in Brussels.
A recent policy initiative by Hollande underlines this tension. In a bid to spur economic growth a "responsibility pact" will cut taxes on businesses in return for a commitment by firms to create jobs.
Greens and UMP also apprehensive
The socialists are not the only ones who fear the forthcoming elections.
France's green party (EELV) is riven by internal division and is to be deprived of its charismatic and popular leader Daniel Cohn Bendit, who is not running to be an MEP again. The party may also be punished because of its participation – through two ministers – in the current government.
It is unlikely that the party will repeat its feat of the previous European election, where it obtained 16 seats. Today it is polling at 7 percent.
The main centre-right party, the UMP, is also struggling and has been unable to benefit from the current government's unpopularity. Nor has it found a counter-narrative to the FN.
Winner of the last 2009 elections, the UMP is suffering from divisions at the head of the party, which has delayed the nomination of its European Parliament candidates.
The two UMP leaders, Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon, are at loggerheads over the party’s electoral strategy.
This internal division may be matched by an external challenge in the centre-right arena.
The pro-EU centre-right alliance (which brings together Francois Bayrou of the Democratic Movement, MoDem, and Jean-Louis Borloo of the Union of Democrats and Independents) has decided to run on a separate list.
The fact that UMP and the Alternative have chosen to compete separately – unlike in previous elections – is contributing to a fragmented political scene.
French voters will elect 74 MEPs on 25 May.