France’s far-right National Front party leads opinion polls for Sunday’s European election after campaigning on a euroskeptic theme. FN leader Marine Le Pen has capitalized on widespread discontent.
Marine Le Pen has learned to deftly plumb the depths of French voters' discontent with traditional parties as the country grapples with high unemployment and economic woes. As voters in France trickled into polling stations on Sunday morning (25.05.2014), many spoke of disillusionment with the whole political class.
"The major parties are no longer credible," said Pierre Sene, who came to vote in central Paris with his pregnant wife and small daughter. The 33-year-old made a blank vote for France's 74 allocated seats in the EU Parliament to demonstrate his disappointment with politicians in general.
"I don't know what to vote anymore," said 49-year-old teacher Simone Langlois, who ended up choosing the Greens due to their concern for "social and environmental issues."
"We're cut off from our politicians who spend their time doing business rather than politics," Langlois added before cycling away from a polling station.
France is suffering from record unemployment of more than three million, a huge budget deficit and slow economic growth.
Lack of leadership drives swing to right
The National Front has capitalized on unhappiness with Socialist President Francois Hollande and his government as well as blaming Brussels for many of the country's woes.
In a shock to many observers, the FN has led in most polls in the run up to the EU vote, with around 23 percent against 21 percent for the centre-right main opposition party, the UMP.
Hollande, meanwhile, was bracing for another blow on Sunday after humiliating losses in local elections in March. Opinion polls suggest that Hollande's party will come third, with no more than 16-18 percent of France's EU Parliament seats.
Le Pen, on the other hand, wooed voters with promises to take France out of the euro and Schengen and to bring back powers from Brussels. France has "shut itself away in the darkness of Europe," Le Pen said recently. The anti-immigration party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the current leader, was for years regarded as a pariah in French politics.
Fatima Hamavache, a 78-year-old UMP supporter, said she was concerned about the rising popularity of the FN as she voted Sunday.
"It's not a real party," Hamavache said. "They have no real policies but they are openly recruiting elderly people in the neighborhood by talking about World War II."
The FN has gained in popularity since Marine Le Pen took over as leader in 2011. The party has expelled overtly racist activists and selected a number of ethnic minority candidates for last March's elections in which it made historic gains.
Toumani Sagare declined to say who he voted for on Sunday, but criticized the media's 'demonization' of the FN. "The other parties talk of freedom and high ideals but they are just as racist as the FN," he said. "I have less reason to mistrust a party which is frank and direct with its views."
If it wins enough seats, the National Front is hoping to form an alliance with other eurosceptic parties in the new European Parliament.