On This Day in 2002: Doomed Socialist favourite laughs off threat of Le Pen in presidential final

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Any presidential campaign has its emblematic moments that change the course of the race, be they breathtaking instant tide-turners or incidents laden with meaning only in hindsight. With French voters set to elect a president on April 24, FRANCE 24 looks back at telling moments from campaigns past. In the spotlight: Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate, roars with laughter at the thought of not making it to the second round, even as the 2002 race rumbles towards disaster.

Just four days before the first round of the 2002 French presidential election, the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, relaxed and smiling, sat down with a mischievous reporter keen for a game of political science fiction.

Twenty years ago – even 96 hours before a fateful first-round vote – it was still unthinkable for a sitting prime minister (or indeed most anyone else) to imagine far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen advancing to a presidential final. Just alien. After all, Le Pen was the diabolical ex-paratrooper who had once downplayed Nazi gas chambers as "a detail" of World War II history. A marginal figure. One that voters would marginalise, surely. And yet a history-shaping cataclysm was to come.

As prime minister for the five years dating back to 1997, the popular Jospin had pushed through socially progressive measures like France's 35-hour workweek. During a period social scientists would later pinpoint as the happiest the French had experienced, Jospin had led a left-wing coalition government while his old rival, the conservative Jacques Chirac, held the Élysée Palace as president. In April 2002, all conventional wisdom, not to mention the polls, saw Jospin advancing to the second round, strolling leisurely towards a run-off duel against Chirac, a rematch of the pair's 1995 clash.

"Imagine, just one moment, Mr. Prime Minister – Mr. Candidate – that you aren't in the second round?" a journalist, John Paul Lepers, asked the Socialist on April 17, 2002. "Who would you vote for?"

Incredulous, Jospin threw back his white-mopped head and laughed heartily. He had to pause to catch his breath before replying. "No, I have an imagination like anyone else, but, still, tempered by reason," he smiled. "So..."

"It's impossible?" the candidate is asked.

"Let's not say that, but it doesn't seem very likely to me, huh? Right. So maybe we can skip to the next question?" Jospin asked blithely, stifling a grin.

The rest is history. Four short days later, Le Pen, the rabble-rousing leader of the National Front, scored 16.86 percent to bring the far right into the final round of a presidential election for the first time. On his fourth bid for the presidency, Le Pen would be challenging the vote-topping incumbent Chirac (19.88 percent) for France's top job two weeks later, not Jospin. The Socialist finished third with 16.18 percent, fewer than 200,000 votes short of the run-off.

With historically low turnout (28.4 percent abstained) and a record number of candidates (16) on the ballot, the bar to entry for the 2002 presidential duel was uncommonly low. And a glut of left-wing candidates had split the vote, their voters just as casually confident as Jospin and untroubled by the far-right threat.

A 'thunderclap', an 'earthquake', a 'bomb'

The surprise result shook France to its core. Not to mention Jospin. Stern and ashen-faced, the prime minister waited no longer than his concession speech to quit politics for good, eliciting screams from supporters overcome with emotion. Likening the result to "a thunderclap", the disgraced Socialist called the far-right foray "a very worrying sign for France and for our democracy".

That same night, young people poured into the streets in spontaneous protest. The next morning's front pages blared seismic headlines: “The Le Pen Bomb” (France Soir), “The Shock” (Le Parisien), “The Earthquake” (the right-leaning daily Le Figaro), “France does not deserve this” (the communist daily L’Humanité) or succinctly, “No” (the left-leaning daily Libération). Apart from one of two Trotskyists on the first-round ballot, every losing left-wing candidate called on their supporters to (hold their noses and) vote for Chirac in the run-off to keep the far right from power. Anti-Le Pen demonstrations built to a crescendo on May Day, five days before the decisive vote, with some 1.3 million protesters taking to the streets – a record at the time that stretched back to France's liberation from Nazi occupation at the close of World War II. On banners and placards across the country, the message was clear: Not this time and never again.

When push came to shove in the May 5 run-off, that vast consensus was redeemed. The all-hands-on-deck front that parties and voters put up to keep the far right from power – dubbed the "Front Républicain" – handed Chirac a landslide victory: 82.2 percent to Le Pen's 17.8. A banana republic score levied in the name of republican democracy. Disaster averted. At least for a while.

Epilogue: undeterred, a far-right machine rumbles to life

The vast majority of French voters, not to mention France's allies abroad, weren't alone in their relief at seeing off the prospect of a President Le Pen in 2002. The far-right demagogue himself would later admit that he, too, had worried about actually winning France's highest office because his National Front at the time lacked the "machinery of power" needed to actually govern the country.

After the 2002 race, the anti-immigrant hardliner would take one final kick at the Élysée can, waging a fifth presidential bid in 2007 at the age of 78. But a more mainstream conservative presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, had by then figured out how to siphon votes from the National Front with striking effect. Le Pen finished fourth in his farewell campaign, eliminated in the first round with 10.44 percent of the vote. Sarkozy topped the 2007 first round with 31 percent of the vote, triple Le Pen's score, before winning the presidency handily. The grizzled old hardliner wouldn't reproduce the earth-shattering impact of his notorious 2002 run – at least not directly.

But far from putting an end to the far right's dalliance with French presidential politics, it turned out 2002 was only the beginning. The long journey to normalising the National Front – rendering it "banal", in the French parlance – began virtually the next day, more or less inadvertently. Starting with Sarkozy, mainstream politicians sought to neutralise the far right's vote-getting power by folding its supporters' concerns into their own policymaking. On the other hand, the extremist outfit would seek to soften its own image in a bid to build up the machinery it needed for governing.

The scrappy Sarkozy's rise to power had begun in earnest after the 2002 vote. Crime fears were seen to have contributed to Le Pen's success and the re-elected Chirac named Sarkozy as his interior minister. From there, Sarkozy made his name as France's top cop, showily waging war on crime and putting undocumented migrants on notice before parlaying his tough talk into a successful bid for the Élysée Palace. As president from 2007, Sarkozy made national priorities of hardline issues like banning the burqa and deporting Roma.

But Sarkozy's appeal to National Front voters soon faded, making good on Le Pen's contention that "people prefer the original to the copy" when he couldn't meet hardline expectations. When Sarkozy stumped for re-election in 2012 blasting "uncontrolled waves of immigration", no one could ignore that he had shaped migration policy himself for a full decade.

Sarkozy lost the 2012 presidential race to Socialist François Hollande. But the National Front was back on the rise. Its candidate, one Marine Le Pen, scored 17.9 percent in the 2012's first round, a party record, after taking up the torch from her father. She then topped the vote in 2014 European Parliament elections, successively adding elected officials to her machinery of power. In 2017 she bettered her dad's 2002 performance, making it to the final and closing the gap on her opponent, Emmanuel Macron. Running as a centrist, Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the 2017 run-off with 66.1 percent to her 33.9. Five years on, the pair will square off in a rematch next Sunday set to be tighter still.

Crossing the Rubicon

The left-leaning Fondation Jean Jaurès think tank argued last year that the so-called "cordon sanitaire" – the barrier that rival political parties agreed to quarantine the National Front off from the levers of power – began "to erode" after Sarkozy's presidency. In 2012, down the stretch of his doomed bid for re-election, Sarkozy crossed the Rubicon when he deemed Marine Le Pen "compatible with the republic". In 2015, his party crossed another line when it officially green-lighted reneging on the republican front in a legislative by-election that pit a leftist candidate against the National Front. After the first presidential round in 2017, far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon declined to explicitly call on his supporters to vote for Macron against Le Pen in the final; last Sunday, he did the same for the 2022 run-off. So, too, did the conservative Les Républicains in deciding not to back a vote for either Macron or Le Pen next Sunday.

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, spent a decade giving the family business a makeover. After taking over in 2011, she set out to "de-demonise" the party her father founded, showing the door to those she deemed "anti-Semites, extremists and extreme-right guys" and rebranding the party the "National Rally". She got a boost for the 2022 race when far-right newcomer Éric Zemmour appeared like a bull in a china shop, deflecting attention and effectively accelerating Le Pen's charm offensive. While Zemmour hogged the limelight with hardline histrionics, Le Pen was free to focus on voters' purchasing power concerns – pledging to slash fuel prices and nix income tax for those under 30. Anyone interested in checking that her hard-right credentials were still intact (banning the hijab, ending birthright citizenship, stripping benefits for foreign nationals) could consult the brochure.

>> Closing in on Macron: Could LePen's blandest campaign be her most successful yet?

Observers note that traditional far-right concerns have gradually shifted from marginal issues in the public debate to central ones, effectively normalising topics once considered beyond the pale and far-right parties.

Back in 2002, Chirac showily refused to take part in a TV debate against fellow presidential finalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. "In the face of intolerance and hatred, no transaction, no compromise of principles, no debate is possible," Chirac explained at the time.

In stark contrast, Macron's Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin last year squared off against Marine Le Pen on primetime television. They sparred over a bill Macron's party was tabling in parliament meant to ward against "Islamist separatism". Indeed, Darmanin had just published a book of that name and Le Pen praised it. "I read your book very carefully," she told Darmanin, a onetime Sarkozy protégé. "And, apart from a few inconsistencies, I could have put my name on it," Le Pen said. Darmanin, for his part, accused Le Pen for "going soft" with "her strategy of de-demonisation". He quipped, "You should take some vitamins; I don't find you tough enough."

That February 2021 encounter was telling. "They spent two hours discussing the place of Muslims in French society at a time when we are living through both a health crisis and an economic crisis," sociologist Ugo Palheta told FRANCE 24 at the time. "The government is trying to reclaim the population's trust by adopting much of the vocabulary and proposals of the far right in a blatant attempt to win votes," the expert argued, noting previous administrations had done the same. "This is what Macron is doing today with a strategy that starts from the principle that the working classes are concerned above all with identity issues, when they are mainly suffering from their socioeconomic situation. The problem is that, the further you extend into far-right terrain, the more the far right progresses," Palheta said.

>> ‘Macron helped advance the far right’: French centrist parties veer rightward to maintain power

Just weeks after that controversial TV clash, the left-leaning daily Libération drew fire from Macron allies for a front page exposé on the exasperated leftists ready to break ranks with the once-sacrosanct republican front, should Macron and Le Pen meet again in the 2022 presidential election final.

Now, faced with just that scenario on April 24, Macron has his work cut out for him. Polls this time have Le Pen within striking distance of the Élysée Palace. Sarkozy, Hollande and Jospin himself have all said they will cast a vote for Macron to keep Le Pen at bay. But student demonstrators are railing against both presidential options and threatening to abstain. One banner hung from a university window in Paris on Thursday declared: "Sorbonne occupied against Le Pen, Macron and their world." Le Pen, meanwhile, said her father Jean-Marie would be invited to the Élysée Palace for her inauguration should she win next Sunday – capping a 20-year wait to see a Le Pen in the presidency.

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