France's far-right political party, the National Front, has emerged stronger than ever from the civil unrest that has plagued the country in the past six months, a new survey shows, suggesting that the party could play a major role in the presidential election next year.
The National Front's outspoken and vehemently anti-immigration leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has had occasional bursts of support before: Four years ago, he made it to the runoff for president, losing to President Jacques Chirac.
But after last fall's riots by second-generation immigrant youth, Le Pen's approval rating in polls surged 5 percentage points, to 21 percent, according to a survey by IFOP, a French polling institute, published on Friday. That is not far behind the approval rating of Chirac's would-be successor, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose score slumped to 29 percent this month amid the political fiasco when nationwide protests forced the government to scrap a new labor law.
Frederic Dabi, who wrote the report, said a string of national crises had bolstered Le Pen's standing, including the resounding rejection last year of a proposed European constitution, which was officially supported by Chirac's governing Union for a Popular Movement Party and the opposition Socialist Party.
A nationwide outburst of vandalism and arson by the children of France's largely Muslim immigrants further played into Le Pen's hands: The National Front responded with a computer-generated video that showed Paris in flames beneath a banner reading "Immigration, explosion in the suburbs, Le Pen foretold it."
The image of French-Arab and French-African youths hurling bottles and stones at the country's anti-riot police during the recent demonstrations against the labor law is only likely to reinforce support for Le Pen, Dabi said.
"All of these crises were very different, but their common point is that they benefited parties outside the political system," Dabi said.
The National Front holds no seats in parliament, but it has up to 30 percent of the seats on some municipal councils, many seats on regional councils and seven seats in the European Parliament.
More than a third of respondents in the IFOP survey said Le Pen's party was in tune with "the concerns of French people."
Still, few analysts contend that Le Pen can repeat his 2002 performance. The Socialist Party did not unite behind a strong candidate in that election. And although it split over support for the European constitution last year, the party is clearly on the mend. Its rising star, Segolene Royal, is the front-runner among presidential contenders in popularity polls, with 34 percent support among prospective voters, according to a TNS Sofres/Unilog survey published this week.
But Royal would be the first woman to lead France if she won, and many people question whether her early popularity is durable enough to carry her to such victory. If voters balk as the election nears, the Socialists may have trouble fielding a strong candidate to take her place.