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when Lionel Jospin underestimated the threat of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s FN


Presidential election campaigns all have iconic moments, be they incidents or twists and turns. As voters are called upon to appoint their president on April 24, France 24 returns to one of these significant episodes: April 17, 2002. Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin is amused at the idea of ​​not being qualified for the second April 21 round. And yet, the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen will ruin his presidential ambitions.

End of the presidential campaign, April 17, 2002. Four days before the first round, the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin, relaxed and smiling, lends himself to the game of political fiction with the journalist John Paul Lepers. The latter questions him: “Imagine for a moment, Mr. Prime Minister – Mr. candidate – that you are not in the second round. Who would you vote for?”

Surprised by the question, the candidate throws his head back while laughing. After a brief pause, he replies: “No, I have a normal imagination, but still tempered by reason. So…” And the journalist continues: “So it’s impossible?”. “Let’s not say that, but it seems rather unlikely to me, huh? Good. So we can move on to the next question perhaps”, finally evacuates Lionel Jospin with a smile.


Twenty years ago to the day, even 96 hours before the fateful election, it was still unthinkable for the incumbent Prime Minister, as well as for most people, to imagine that the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen could be in the second round of the presidential election. After all, Jean-Marie Le Pen was the man convicted of calling the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of World War II history. Voters would obviously marginalize him for that. The cataclysm that would shape history was yet to come.

The popular Lionel Jospin was coming out of a five-year cohabitation with Jacques Chirac during which he had passed socially progressive measures such as the 35-hour week. In April 2002, popular wisdom and all the polls gave him in the second round against the incumbent president for a rematch of the left-right clash of 1995.

The sequel went down in history. On April 21, Jean-Marie Le Pen (16.86%) hoists the French far right for the first time in the second round of a presidential election. The National Front candidate will face outgoing President Jacques Chirac (19.88%), at the top of the votes, and Lionel Jospin finishes third (16.18%) less than 200,000 votes from second place.

With a historic abstention rate (28.4%) and a record number of candidates (16), the scores of the qualified in the second round were unusually low. To this was added a scattering of votes due to multiple candidacies on the left, and an electorate just as confident as Lionel Jospin.

“Thunderclap” of the far right

This surprise result shook France. The socialist candidate too. On the evening of the first round, a stern and closed-faced Lionel Jospin announced that he was “retiring from political life” to the loud cries of his supporters. Comparing what just happened to “a clap of thunder”, the disgraced socialist also qualifies the breakthrough of the far right as “a very worrying sign for France and for our democracy”.

The same evening, young people spontaneously took to the streets to protest against the extreme right. The next morning, the front pages of the newspapers were unequivocal: “The Le Pen bomb” (France Soir), “The shock” (Le Parisien), “The earthquake” (Le Figaro), “France does not deserve this ” (Humanity) or “No” (Liberation).

Almost all the left-wing candidates in the first round are calling on their supporters to hold their noses and vote for Jacques Chirac in the second round in order to block the far right. The anti-Le Pen demonstrations are in full swing and on May 1 – five days before the second round – some 1.3 million people demonstrate in the streets. A record mobilization in France since the Liberation, at the end of the Second World War. On placards across the country, the message is clear: not this time and never again.

On May 5, the vast consensus – baptized “Republican Front” – against the FN is redeemed: Jacques Chirac wins a landslide victory (82.2%) against Jean-Marie Le Pen (17.8%). A score worthy of a banana republic obtained in the name of republican democracy. Disaster is averted, at least for a time.

Towards a trivialization of the National Front and its ideas

The majority of French voters and France’s allies abroad were not the only ones relieved to see the prospect of a far-right president evaporate. Jean-Marie Le Pen himself admitted later, in 2014, that he would “not have been ready to take power” if he had acceded to the highest office of the state, because the National Front did not have at the time the “machinery of power” necessary to govern the country.

In 2007, the anti-immigration candidate, 78, ran – for the fifth time – in a presidential election, but without experiencing the same success: he finished fourth in the first round (10.44% of the vote). The candidate of the UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had succeeded in siphoning off the votes of the FN, is well ahead of the first round (31.1%).

But this election is far from putting an end to the adventure of the extreme right in the race for the French presidential election. The 2002 election was only the beginning of a long journey towards the trivialization of the National Front. A normalization started practically the day after the re-election of Jacques Chirac.

Traditional politicians, starting with Nicolas Sarkozy, have sought to neutralize the electoral potential of the extreme right by integrating the concerns of FN supporters into their political strategies. The FN sought, for its part, to smooth its image and to create the governmental machine necessary to govern.

After the 2002 election – whose electoral campaign was largely marked by the theme of insecurity – Jacques Chirac appointed Nicolas Sarkozy Minister of the Interior. He made a name for himself as “France’s first cop”, fighting against crime and against undocumented migrants, and made the banning of the burqa or the expulsion of Roma people national priorities after his election in 2007.

But the attraction of National Front voters for Nicolas Sarkozy quickly fades. Le Pen’s assertion that “people prefer the original to the copy” holds true when he fails to respond to the hardliners. “Uncontrollable waves of immigration” explode in the face of the man who has shaped migration policy for a decade. In 2012, he was not re-elected – in favor of the socialist candidate François Hollande.

Meanwhile, the National Front resumed its rise: Marine Le Pen – who took over from her father – obtained 17.9% of the vote in the first round, a record for the far-right party. Then she finished at the top of the votes in the 2014 European elections, bringing elected officials to her “power machine”. In 2017, she repeated her father’s performance, leading the far right to the second round of the presidential election against Emmanuel Macron. And, like her father, she bows sharply (33.9%) against the center-right candidate (66.1%). Five years later, the same two politicians clash again for a duel which is announced as even tighter.

Crossing the Rubicon

The Jean Jaurès Foundation claimed in 2021 that the “sanitary cord” vis-à-vis the far right began to “erode” at the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency and that “the Republican Front has since been fragmented several years now.” The think tank cites several examples to support its point: in 2012, when Nicolas Sarkozy crossed the Rubicon by judging Marine Le Pen “compatible with the Republic”; in 2015, when the political bureau of the UMP acted on the strategy of “neither Republican Front nor National Front” during a partial legislative election. In 2017, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon did not speak out directly for a Macron vote against Marine Le Pen.

The far-right candidate has spent a decade “demonizing” her father’s party. After taking over as president in 2011, she fired those she deemed “anti-Semitic, extremist and far-right”. She also renamed the National Front, which became the National Rally.

In 2022, she received a boost from newcomer to the far right, Éric Zemmour. The latter, taking a hard political line, diverted attention and made Marine Le Pen more efficient in his seduction operation. She was able to present herself mainly as the candidate of purchasing power while making people forget her far-right references – yet very present in her program: ban on wearing the veil in public space, end of citizenship by birth or further abolition of social benefits for foreign nationals.

The relationship with the far right has also changed in twenty years, their traditional concerns shifting from the margins to the center of public debate. In 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to debate with Jean-Marie Le Pen during the between-two-rounds. “Faced with intolerance and hatred, no compromise, no compromise on principles, no debate is possible,” he argued. In 2021, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin debated “Islamist separatism” with Marine Le Pen during prime time on a public service channel. The former protégé of Nicolas Sarkozy who had just published a book on the subject was entitled to: “I read your book carefully. And, apart from a few inconsistencies, I could have put my name on it”. Gérald Darmanin, meanwhile, accused Marine Le Pen of having become “soft” with her “de-demonization strategy”: “You should take vitamins. I don’t find you hard enough”.

In February 2021, sociologist Ugo Palheta deciphered the exchange for France 24: “They discussed for two hours the place of Muslims in French society, while we are experiencing both a health crisis and an economic crisis. government is trying to win back the trust of the population by adopting much of the vocabulary and proposals of the extreme right, in a blatant attempt to win votes.This is what Macron is doing today with this strategy, which starts the principle that the working classes are more concerned with problems of identity when they are essentially suffering from the economic crisis. The problem is that the more we advance on the terrain of the extreme right, the more it progresses”.

A few weeks later, the newspaper Liberation fired red balls at Macron’s allies and made its front page on the exasperation of left-wing voters ready to break the sacrosanct Republican Front if Macron and Le Pen found themselves in the second round.

On April 24, it is indeed the scenario of 2017 that repeats itself. But this time, the polls announce a tight duel between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Lionel Jospin all declared, during the interval between the two rounds, that they would vote for the outgoing president. Students, themselves, express their dissatisfaction with this duel and threaten to abstain. Their watchword: #NiMacronNiLePen. Marine Le Pen projects herself. She has already announced that her father would be invited for his investiture at the Élysée in the event of victory next Sunday. The RN candidate would thus put an end to 20 years of waiting to see a Le Pen at the Élysée.

This article was adapted by Jean-Luc Mounier. The original version can be read here.

France 24-Trans

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