For the fourth time in as many weeks, Europe has been the setting of a significant terrorist attack, again bringing chaos to the geographic and cultural heart of one of the continent’s major cities. Yet what separates Thursday’s Paris attack from the others, is the potential role it may play in shaping the course of E.U. and French politics for generations. On Sunday, the French will head to the polls in the first of a two round election to chose the nation’s president for the next five years.
Considered a clear frontrunner in first round voting earlier this year, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right Front National, has been slowly losing ground to En Marche’s Emmanuel Macron. These two, along with the center-right Françrois Fillon and left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, make up the leading candidates for the French presidency.
Le Pen has long advocated for the protection of France against global terrorism by a moratorium on immigration, and by reinstating national border controls to prevent free access for migrants predominantly from Muslim countries. In a nation that has seen nearly 240 people killed by ISIS-related terror attacks, her message has resonated, and she has held steady support from approximately one-quarter of the country. This was enough to keep her in a steady polling lead until mid-March when she dropped just below Macron, who although once a member of the Socialist Party, has now adopted a centrist, Third Way posture for this election.
But with tension already high in France after authorities foiled an imminent plot in Marseille, the ISIS-claimed attack on police officers Thursday night in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe only serves to reinforce many of the assertions made by Le Pen and validate the concerns of her supporters.
The timing of this violence may also indicate that it was the intent of the terrorist to impact the election in some way, as it occurred near the start of a primetime televised debate between the 11 total candidates.
All of the participants amended their closing statements to reflect the tragedy and mourn the loss of the murdered police officer. However, there can be no doubt that this attack will further the divide between those voters who are at some level tolerant of the rising population and influence of Muslims in France, and those who support Le Pen, who has held firm on her anti-Sharia and immigration reform ideals in the run up to the election.
Although it is unpleasant to think that the murder of one human may benefit another, Thursday’s attack may serve to help Le Pen to solidify a first place win on Sunday in round one. Polls gauging voter support show that she clearly has the most loyal base, with 85 percent of her respondents saying they are certain of their choice, while Macron and others towards the left have much less confident voters. This suggests that external factors, like a terrorist attack, may be more likely to sway undecided voters to the right.
There’s precedent for this from December 2015, when an already ascendant Front National saw extraordinary gains in the first round of regional elections, which analysts and pundits were confident to attribute to a reaction to the November terrorist attacks which left 130 people dead, and a resulting fear of Muslim immigration.
The bad news for Le Pen, however, was that in France’s runoff style voting, her party failed to capture any regional presidencies in the second round when the fields were narrowed. Preliminary polling surveyed before the Champs-Elysees shooting suggests that this may be the likely result again regardless of whether she faces Emmanuel Macron or Francois Fillon next month.
Additionally, the latest Harris poll has her losing the May 7 runoff by 34 points to Macron, and by a narrower 59 percent to 41 percent to Fillon.
The one thing that can be certain is that Le Pen could capitalize on this attack as a further justification for her presidency. As her campaign tweeted out quotes from the debate, all eight of those chosen were about Islamic terrorism or the attack. Another, stamped with her personal “MLP,” expressed solidarity with French security forces. This has been the singular issue for her, and will be until the end.
In all, this may not change the outcome of the race significantly as Le Pen was always extremely likely to advance to the second round where she simply may not be able to carry enough votes over to secure the presidency. Still, for the next three days, all eyes will be on France.
Joseph Borelli, self-admitted Francophile, is a New York City council member, professor, former state legislator, Republican commentator, and Lindsay Fellow at the City University of New York's Institute for State and Local Governance. He has been published in the NY Daily News and appears on CNN, Fox News, and BBC. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CUNY ISLG.
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