PARIS — French voters don’t choose their next president until April, but terrorism, immigration and incumbent President Francois Hollande’s dismal approval ratings are already fueling an anti-establishmentarian wave that is once again helping the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front.
Opinion polls show that National Front party leader Marine Le Pen would win 30 percent of the national vote if elections were held today. That would be a big gain from her tally of 18 percent in the 2012 election, which put Socialist Party standard-bearer Mr. Hollande in the Elysee Palace for the first time.
“The atmosphere is different now,” said Catherine Heron, 43, a Paris-based corporate communications manager. “People feel that the government and politicians in general are not up to their task anymore.”
Mr. Hollande’s struggles have attracted a varied cast of contenders, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who lost to Mr. Hollande in 2012 because of the unpopularity of his free-market-oriented reforms, and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, the favorite to capture the nomination of the center-right Republicans. The two men will face off — along with five other rivals — in a televised debate Thursday evening that many think could determine which will emerge as the conservative standard-bearer.
All sides are trying to gauge — and contain — the threat from Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Hollande’s former economy minister, who quit the Cabinet in August amid widespread speculation that he was preparing an independent presidential run. Mr. Juppe denounced the ambitious 38-year-old former banker as a “Brutus” for leaving the government, but polls show Mr. Macron scrambling the race on the right over who will survive to the presidential round of voting.
Under the French presidential system, if no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first round in April, the two front-runners participate in a runoff election a month later. In a badly fractured field, that can play to the advantage of fringe parties such as the National Front, which needs to attract only a significant plurality of the vote to reach the runoff.
For the first time, both the center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans are holding primary battles to pick a candidate, amping up the political infighting well before the formal election season gets underway in the spring.
As with the U.S. election next month, French voters are deeply unhappy about the course of the country. Rocked by a string of spectacular terrorist attacks and struggling with a stagnant economy, Mr. Hollande has approval ratings of only 15 percent.
The president has lost popularity as terrorists repeatedly outwit the country’s ill-prepared security services.
“After last year’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January and in Paris in November, there is a definite loss of confidence in the government,” said Richard Delaye, an anthropologist at IGS, a consortium of French universities.
Softening the image
Ms. Le Pen has worked hard to soften the image of the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, avoiding his trademark explicit anti-Semitic and racist comments. Instead, she advocates for curbing immigration, reclaiming powers from the European Union and strengthening law and order in the wake of a series of deadly Islamic State attacks throughout the country since early last year. The stunning success of the Brexit vote across the English Channel taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union was just the latest demonstration of the political pull of such sentiments across the continent.
“There has been a boom of membership requests and interest from citizens, particularly in the couple of days immediately after the attack in Nice,” said Jean-Lin Lacapelle, deputy general secretary of the National Front.
On July 14, a lone terrorist, a Tunisian living in France, plowed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the waterfront in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring 434.
Mr. Lacapelle declined to provide a precise figure for new members, but he noted that a Facebook video of a press conference Ms. Le Pen held after the Nice attack attracted close to 1 million views. At the press conference, she called for the reintroduction of compulsory military service, border controls at checkpoints that are now open under EU rules, the closing of fundamentalist mosques, and the expulsions of radical imams and foreigners found guilty of serious crimes.
“Politicians don’t know how to fight the war that is being waged against us,” said Mr. Lacapelle.
While Ms. Le Pen is making hay from terrorism and immigration fears, she and her supporters often decline to mention that the vast majority of the Islamic State-affiliated terrorists in France have ironically been French or EU citizens or living in France legally, said Sophie Pedder, The Economist’s Paris bureau chief who wrote a book about French politicians in denial about the country’s political and economic straits.
“The National Front is the party that is more likely to reap rewards from what is going on,” said Ms. Pedder. “This is the side effect of their grouping immigration together with terrorism, even though terrorists in France have been homegrown or French.”
In a bid to rally around the embattled Mr. Hollande, Socialist Party leaders have scheduled an extraordinary primary vote in January. It’s the first time a sitting French president has faced an intraparty ballot in 50 years.
The primary move reflects voters’ frustration with the Socialists. A poll has found that two-thirds of French voters would be happy if the Socialist Party went defunct after the presidential election.
Mr. Hollande hasn’t officially announced that he is standing for re-election but told the magazine L’Obs on Wednesday that he would announce his plans in December.
In an interview, he warned that the center-right candidates such as Mr. Sarkozy would go back on many long-standing reforms, notably the 35-hour workweek that critics say is holding back French competitiveness and employment growth.
The center-right French Republicans are holding a primary at the end of November to choose from among eight candidates, including Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Juppe.
A Harris poll shows Mr. Juppe opening a slight lead over Mr. Sarkozy and would defeat him 53 percent to 47 percent in a head-to-head matchup for the party nomination. French press reports say Mr. Sarkozy’s term left such bad feelings that hundreds of thousands of leftist voters are planning to “crash” the Republican primary to vote against him.
Barring a last-minute Socialist recovery, the winner of the contest between the combative Mr. Sarkozy and the more temperate Mr. Juppe is likely to come head-to-head with Ms. Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election. Every opinion poll forecasts her making it to the final runoff in May but facing a near-certain defeat in a general election.
In a bid to court voters tempted by the far right, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Juppe have largely focused their primary campaigns on issues that are close to the National Front: a hard-line stance on immigration, pro-France policies and integration of Muslims into France.
After youths in a banlieue, or housing complex, outside Paris threw Molotov cocktails at police cars and seriously injured two officers last weekend, for instance, Mr. Juppe said that incident and a rise in similar violence were proof of Mr. Hollande’s incompetence.
“A strong state is a state that does not back away, that ends lawlessness,” Mr. Juppe wrote in a tweet.