May 15, 2012 8:26 pm

Extreme politics

France’s UMP will lose from flirtation with far right

He says she is semi-demented. She likens him to an obsessive lover. The battle between the leaders of France’s political extremes – Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the hard left and Marine Le Pen on the far right – to win the northern French town of Hénin-Beaumont in June’s parliamentary elections promises to be a spectacular showdown.

At stake is not just the credibility of the left, for whom the former coal-mining town was once a political stronghold. But the result could have even greater consequences for the centre-right UMP, already at risk of fracturing after the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy in the recent presidential elections.

Ms Le Pen’s National Front has been courting Hénin-Beaumont for years. Industrial decline, high unemployment and a financial scandal involving Socialist politicians that cost the city millions have all helped the party to make strong inroads into this largely working class electorate. A win here would not only be a strong symbol of its rising electoral power. A seat in parliament would give legitimacy to a party long shunned by the mainstream for its xenophobic, protectionist views.

The Socialist party has failed dismally to halt Ms Le Pen’s encroachment on its working class heartland. Now the re-emergence in Hénin-Beaumont of party divisions – briefly suppressed for the presidential campaign – risks easing her path to parliament.

The UMP has the most to fear from her arrival in the deputies’ chamber. Already some party faithful are lobbying for a deal with the National Front to ensure the right holds on to seats in the parliamentary elections.

Party leaders have sensibly ruled out any such horse-trading. For all its cosmetic rebranding, the National Front has little in common with the centre-right. But UMP leaders should also resist the temptation to take the party’s rhetoric further to the right in a bid to woo back those who were disillusioned by Mr Sarkozy’s presidency. That strategy was shown to have failed the day he was defeated. It may even have helped to legitimise Ms Le Pen’s political standing. In using language normally associated with the National Front on issues such as national identity and immigration, Mr Sarkozy broke certain taboos.

Whatever the far right’s success, for now it remains on the fringe for the majority of voters. The UMP’s best hope for the future lies in leaving it there, and not paying Ms Le Pen the compliment of courting her. Such flirting will only weaken its credibility.

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