If French President Nicholas Sarkozy believed that his display of leadership in the Libyan crisis, that put France in the vanguard of international intervention, would be instantly rewarded by the French voter, Sunday's first round of cantonal elections proved a disappointment. These are the last elections prior to legislative and presidential elections in 2112 .
The National Front, headed by Marinne Le Pen, came within 2 percentage points of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party. Ms. Le Pen had effectively used the Middle East crisis to her own advantage by landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first stop of the asylum seekers. Here, Le Pen advised that it would be preferable to set up camps in Egypt and Tunisia rather than have these refugee hordes descend on Europe.
The UMP shrugged off the electoral defeats by explaining that the participation rate was 50% and therefore not indicative of the presidential balloting. The selections, however, confirm the results in the polls. If the National Front keeps close to 20% of the electorate, it will be hard for Sarkozy or any other center-right candidate to best a candidate of United Left. If, however, the UMP woos the National Front openly, it risks losing centrist voters to the Socialists.
Sarkozy had hoped that the Libyan intervention would, amongst other things, display French initiative in controlling the immigration issue. Sarkozy has reacted not by openly wooing the National Front but by muscling in on their territory, calling for an intraparty debate on the role of Islam. Claude Geant, the Interior Mininster, claimed that due to massive immigration, the French sometimes don't feel at home. Critics of this approach claim that this policy only further accredits the National Front.
The (leftist) Socialists have sought to capitalize on the discomfiture of the ruling party on this issue and have suggested an alliance based on French Republican values, where if there is a contest between the National Front and a center-right candidate, the left will back the latter. This would be reciprocated in cases where the contest pitted the candidate of the left against the National Front.
The suggestion is a honey trap. If the UMP accepts it, it will lose National Front support on the second and decisive ballot. If it rejects this proposal, it forfeits votes in the political Center.
This dilemma led to a dramatic verbal split between the president and his Prime Minister Francois Fillon. The president turned down socialists overtures to make common cause against candidates from the Front and rejected "collusion between the UMP and the Socialist party." The Prime Minister's advice was "you must vote against the National Front."
Some members of the UMP have fired back by urging the Socialist party to clarify its position with regards to its allies on the extreme left prior to pressuring the UMP on combatting the National Front.