LONDON, UK – With new French President François Hollande fast becoming the country’s least exciting man, it’s little wonder that an inexperienced young politician is stealing headlines ahead of parliamentary elections this weekend.
Hollande, the socialist who unseated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy last month by promising to roll back austerity measures, has been at such pains to establish himself as “Mr. Normal” that the media are getting bored already. Instead, they’re lavishing attention on Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
Maréchal-Le Pen, a 22-year-old law student with minimal political experience, is seen as one of the far-right Front National (FN) party’s brightest hopes for Sunday’s first-round elections for the Assemblée Nationale.
Though small in political terms, gaining a seat in parliament would be a significant milestone in the FN’s revival. The party hasn’t held a seat since the 1980s, and was once expected to vanish whenever founder Jean-Marie Le Pen decides to bow out of public life.
But after a surprise strong showing of support for his youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, who stood as FN’s presidential candidate and attracted 17.9 percent of the vote to finish in third place behind Hollande and Sarkozy, the party is back on the scene.
And as the latest in FN’s ruling dynasty to run for office, Maréchal-Le Pen is seen as a contender thanks to a resurgence in support for the far-right and a fresh-faced appearance that has beguiled journalists more accustomed to portraying an uglier side to extremist politics.
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The third generation Le Pen is standing for election in Vaucluse, a constituency in Provence — the southern French region whose landscapes were once rendered in the swirling brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh.
In the presidential elections, Marine Le Pen, who is Maréchal-Le Pen’s aunt, won 31.5 percent of the vote in Vaucluse, ahead of nearest rival Sarkozy. With Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party now in disarray, the area is seen as a very strong prospect for the anti-immigration and anti-Europe FN.
So strong in fact, that 83-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen was originally poised to use the seat to launch his comeback. His decision to instead defer to his granddaughter is seen as a wise choice, especially given that his stewardship of the party saw it regularly having to deny fascist tendencies.
While Maréchal-Le Pen is clearly seen as a more electable, more acceptable face of the FN, she denies coming under pressure to stand. She told one interviewer: “In the family, no one is ever pushed, I came to politics spontaneously, there was no obligation. It has to happen naturally."
If successful, Maréchal-Le Pen is unlikely to give Hollande too many sleepless nights. The FN is predicted to gain at most three seats.
On the broader parliamentary landscape, the president’s Socialist party may yet struggle to achieve a majority. That means he could end up relying on left-wing coalition partners to help him push through the stimulus package he says will revive economic growth and cut unemployment.
Although recent polls have given Hollande an approval rating of about 60 percent — election forecasts see the Socialists falling short of the 289 seats needed to command the 577-seat national assembly following a second round vote on June 17.
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While the French political left should attain between 303 and 357 seats and so be able to dominate the 220 to 274 seats predicted for the UMP and other right-wing parties, Hollande urgently needs support to expedite his policies as Europe’s economic troubles bear down.
"I call on the French to vote," he said on Thursday in response to predictions of that 40 percent of the electorate would stay away from the ballot box. "I call on them to give a large majority, a solid and coherent one."
He could yet pull it off, thanks to the popularity gained by distancing himself from the “bling bling” excess of his predecessor. So far he has taken a 30 percent pay cut and is close to fulfilling campaign promises of taxing millionaires at 75 percent while also reducing pensionable ages.
“I think Hollande should reap a majority, but how large is the real question,” political commentator Agnes Poirier told GlobalPost. “The French just elected him, so it’d be very surprising if they didn’t give him the means to govern.”
Yet although the contrast with Sarkozy has been initially welcomed, commentators say they are fast becoming tired of Hollande’s “normal guy” shtick. The last straw seems to be the revelation that, in addition to his normal appearance, his use of normal public transport and his desire to continue living in a normal Paris apartment, even Hollande’s health is normal.
“‘I’m President Normal, I take the train, the car, the pedal boat and my ministers wear jeans to government meetings,’” mocked one commentator on the Nouvel Observateur website who echoed the sentiments of other journalists demanding a moratorium on the “N” word.