The growing threat to France’s mainstream political leaders posed by Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Front, has been underscored by an opinion poll putting her in the lead for the first time in the race for the next presidential election.
The charismatic Ms Le Pen has overtaken former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy in voting intentions if the first round of the election were held today, with socialist incumbent François Hollande trailing in third, according to the Ifop poll.
Ms Le Pen scored 26 per cent in the poll, up from 24 per cent in the last sounding taken in April, while Mr Sarkozy, widely expected to announce a political comeback in September, slipped six points to 25 per cent following court accusations of corruption levelled against him in early July.
The FN has been on the rise since Ms Le Pen took over leadership of the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011. She came third behind Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election with 18 per cent of the vote and the party has since grown as Mr Hollande’s popularity has slumped in the face of recession and rising unemployment.
In May’s European parliamentary elections, the FN won a nationwide vote for the first time, easily defeating both Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party and the socialists with a score of 25 per cent.
The latest poll, for the magazine Marianne, appeared to confirm the damage caused to Mr Sarkozy and the UMP by financial scandals and internal leadership wrangling that have sapped its ability to present a coherent opposition to Mr Hollande’s government, despite the president’s record-low personal approval ratings.
Mr Sarkozy was questioned under arrest and then placed under formal investigation on July 2 on suspicion of corruption, influence peddling and a breach of professional secrecy linked to a separate probe into his election campaign financing in 2007.
The UMP is also under investigation over allegations of covering up millions of euros in spending above legal limits in Mr Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign.
The Ifop poll underlined growing fears on both the mainstream left and right that Ms Le Pen is set to repeat the feat of her father in 2002 when he reached the second round of the presidential election by coming second, knocking out the then socialist candidate Lionel Jospin.
Most analysts continue to believe she would then be defeated in the run-off by whichever candidate she faced, as mainstream voters rallied to defeat her. The Ifop poll did not test second round voting intentions, but earlier polls have shown a narrower margin of defeat than the 82-18 per cent loss suffered by her father against Jacques Chirac in 2002, especially if her opponent were Mr Hollande.
Concerns that Mr Hollande is already heading for defeat have prompted speculation that the Socialist party might opt for another candidate. But the Ifop poll showed neither of the two likeliest alternatives, Manuel Valls, the reformist prime minister, nor Arnaud Montebourg, the leftwing economy minister, doing any better.