BRUSSELS was facing a growing political crisis today as polls showed French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has stormed into a shock lead over her presidential rivals.
UPDATED: 15:52, Mon, Nov 21, 2016
A series of bombshell surveys suggested that the Front National chief will wallop all of the conservative candidates in the first round of the race to become the next leader of France.
Eurosceptic Ms Le Pen, who has vowed to lead the country out of the EU, scored between four and nine per cent higher than either of the two centre-right politicians she is expected to battle for the keys to the Elysee Palace.
However, she still faces an uphill task to clinch the top job because of the nature of France’s voting system, which requires candidates to win more than 50 per cent of the electorate over a two-round process.
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Polling conducted earlier this year indicates that the controversial FN chief will eventually lose out to whichever conservative candidate she comes up against by a comfortable margin in the second part of the contest.
Regardless, the fact that a third or more of French voters are now prepared to back a candidate who openly advocates dismantling the EU project will send shivers down the spine of a Brussels elite struggling to comprehend the surging populist tide on its doorstep.
After the results were released, Ms Le Pen tweeted: “I am the patriotic candidate, I’m fighting in the name of the people. That is the meaning of my bid for the presidency.”
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And some political commentators are already drawing comparisons with Donald Trump’s shock run to the White House as France’s centre-right party prepares to choose between two tired establishment stalwarts for its presidential candidate.
The conservatives will pick either Francois Fillon or Alain Juppé – both former prime ministers with less than scandal-free reputations – after controversial ex president Nicolas Sarkozy dropped out of the race to represent the party.
Either man will present a certain risk, with Ms Le Pen bound to pounce on their chequered records in office and engage in the same anti-establishment rhetoric which served Mr Trump and the Brexit campaign so well.
And the shock surveys released this week show that, in the first round of voting, the anti-immigration politician would beat Mr Fillon by 29 per cent to 20 per cent, and Mr Juppé by a narrower margin of 30 per cent to 26 per cent.
This is really the victory of the people against the elites
Marine Le Pen
But polling carried out earlier this year envisaging possible second round scenarios showed that, when it came down to a final two, voters would rally to the moderate candidate with Mr Fillon beating Ms Le Pen by 61 per cent to 39 per cent, and Mr Juppé winning by 68 per cent to 32 per cent.
However, experts have warned that shock events like Mr Trump’s election and the Brexit vote, which caught the establishment totally by surprise, show how surveys are now likely to be hugely underestimating levels of support for radical candidates.
A poll published immediately after the US elections showed that French voters overwhelmingly believe that the FN leader has the most to gain from the Republican’s stunning victory earlier this month which seriously rocked Brussels.
And in a sign of the growing panic gripping the EU project, the current French prime minister Manuel Valls has admitted for the first time that a Le Pen victory is “possible”.
Mr Valls said: “If she does make it to the second round she will face either a candidate of the left or the right. This means that the balance of politics will change completely.”
Earlier this year bureaucrat Martin Selmayr, the right-hand man of Brussels chief Jean-Claude Juncker, summed up the EU’s feeling towards the FN leader and other eurosceptics when he tweeted that her election would be a “horror scenario”.
Last week Le Pen appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show and reaffirmed her belief that global anti-establishment sentiments could boost her chances of becoming France’s next president.
She said that Trump’s victory “made possible what had previously been presented as impossible”.
She added: “This is really the victory of the people against the elites.”
During the last French elections in 2012, Le Pen came third behind Mr Sarkozy and eventual winner Francois Hollande, who has gone on to become the most unpopular president in the country’s history.