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France veers to the right as National Front gains support

Wednesday, 30 Oct 2013 | 5:58 AM ET
Alain Jocard | AFP | GettyImages

Like the Tea Party in the U.S. and the U.K. Independence Party in Britain, France's National Front is giving the country's government a massive right-wing headache.

After coming in third at the French 2012 presidential election, the National Front looks set to gain more votes as it heads into European parliamentary elections next year – even though it is calling for the end of the very body to which it wants to be elected. However, commentators tell CNBC the impact on the French economy of the National Front's policies could be disastrous.

As austerity continues to be felt across Europe and governments struggle to fight unemployment, far-right parties have surged in opinion polls. The French National Front has garnered strong popular support since it was founded in 1972 on a hard-line anti-immigration, anti-Europe ticket. In 2002 , party founder Jean-Marie le Pen beat the Socialist party into the second round of the presidential elections with 16.86 percent of votes.

Since taking over from her father in 2011, Marine Le Pen has picked up the torch and the party has seen its popularity rise further. In the 2012 presidential elections, she came in third, but still managed to beat her father's score with 17.9 percent of votes. And more recently, the party came back in the limelight, once again challenging the status quo, when one of its candidates won the Brignoles county elections in the south of the country with 53.9 percent of votes.

For the party, this small win is only the beginning, a theory that a slew of recent polls support. A TNS Figaro Magazine survey published on October 3 shows that a third of French people want Marine Le Pen to occupy a more important role in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, France's socialist president, Francois Hollande, is foundering in the polls with the worst approval rating for any incumbent leader in 32 years, according to BVA survey.

(Read more: Leader of Greek far-right Golden Dawn party jailed pendingtrial)

The National Front's progress matches the rise of the anti-big government parties elsewhere around the globe. In the U.S., the Tea Party wing of the Republicans was blamed for bringing the country to a standstill in the spending row and its attempts to stop President Barack Obama's healthcare program. Meanwhile. Britain's UKIP has got the Conservative-led coalition government on the back foot with its anti-immigration, anti-EU policies.

In next year's European elections, where member states elect MPs to represent them in the European Parliament, the National Front's aim is simple, "it's to be in the lead," Florian Philippot, vice-president of the National Front.

"We believe that patriots will make a grand entrance" in the European Parliament said the National Front's Philippot and that "therefore, there will be a lot more patriotic MPs questioning the EU's purpose".

(Read more: EU's Barroso 'Fueling' Far-Right: French Minister)

Manuel Valls, France's Interior minister has warned that the National Front could be the leading political party in the European elections and that "the threat is not just in France. I fear there is a risk that the extreme right and populists will gain real weight in the European Parliament".

Douglas Webber, professor of political sciences at INSEAD, explains that "the fact that the EU is currently very unpopular in France as well as elsewhere and that the National Front has a strong 'anti-European' profile will help it in these elections".

What the National Front wants is to renegotiate the terms of France's membership of the EU: in their words to "salvage the national sovereignty", "acquire the ability to do some protectionism", "recover the monetary sovereignty" and "dissolve the Shenghen area", which allows people from 26 European member states to work and move freely between countries. After it has attempted to renegotiate those terms, the National Front will put France's membership of the EU to the popular vote.

But several economists have warned that the National Front's anti-EU program would be dangerous.

"If it [National Front] ever were to exercise a decisive influence on French economic policy, its impact on the French and European economy would likely be disastrous", said Webber, as the party's economic policies would mean withdrawing from the euro zone but also from the Union.

"The European Union is an anomaly and it does not work" argued Philippot and the "euro question is central". For the National Front, the common currency has not only failed to keep its promises but it desindustrializes countries.

(Read more: Could France see the return of Nicolas Sarkozy?)

"The euro is only adapted to the German economy", he continued, "so the idea is that we should program its end".

For Thomas Guénolé, senior lecturer at French university Sciences Politiques, the economic propositions from the National Front reveal a "complete ignorance of the way the global monetary system works" and returning to the Franc would be "an economic and financial catastrophe".

He explains that France, on its own, would not generate the same importance and trust, and would most probably not be allowed to repay its debt in the new Franc but in euro.

Furthermore, the "intelligent protectionism" the National Front wants to implement by erecting "targeted custom duties" to "control the borders" and "reindustrialise France" as Florian Philippot puts it, would not be helped by the neo-Franc.

According to Guénolé, the country would need several years to reindustrialise itself but prices for imported goods would shoot up by around 20 percent following the euro-exit so "the positive impact on employment and spending power does not occur, while the hike in cost of living is immediate".

Concern over the practicalities of the National Front's party's anti-immigration stance have also been flagged. Economist Valérie Rabault, in 2011, highlighted that while France welcomed an average of 200,000 new migrants every year, its economy needed at least 300,000.

But the party refutes its critics' arguments. "Our programme is serious and coherent, Thomas Guénolé does not know anything about economics", and adds that "the National Front's propositions are based on the works of economists who publish, are respected and teach in French Grandes Ecoles."


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