Infamous leader of the French far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has predicted that Griffin’s appearance on Question Time will boost the Brit’s popularity. Certainly Le Pen’s own performance on a similar French chat show proved a great boon for him.
Before he appeared on the prime-time show L’Heure de Vérité in 1984, his Front National had seen little press coverage and was polling at 3.5 %. Afterwards, they went on to score 11% in the European elections that year.
No wonder Le Pen called his TV stint “the hour that changed everything” and said the BNP “could now enjoy a surge in support” in an interview with the Evening Standard this week.
And his heure de vérité in 1984 was only the start. Le Pen went on to shock the French nation by coming second in the French presidential race in 2002, beating the former prime minister Lionel Jospin.
So far, so bad. But if we’re truly to understand the impact that Griffin’s Question Time performance might have, we need to look at what happened after Le Pen’s first round success in the 2002 elections.
Le Pen was totally trounced in the second round, winning 18% of the vote to Jacques Chirac’s 82%. Determined to stop the nightmare scenario of Le Pen Le Président, even voters who despised Chirac were prepared to, as the slogan ran: “Vote for the criminal, not the fascist.” (Chirac was suspected of corruption at that time).
More interesting was the “Le Pen effect” in the 2007 elections. There was an exceptional turnout of 84%, with 8 million more people voting than in 2002. As a French friend of mine explained at the time:
“I’m not particularly enamoured with either Sarko or Ségo but I’m determined to exercise my right to vote. We can’t have another embarrassment like 2002.”
Success can be a double-edged sword for extreme parties. More people voting for them – or perceived to be voting for them – will lead more moderate voters who had been wavering to cast their ballots against them.
In Le Pen’s case 2002 also proved to be his peak. A million fewer people voted for him in 2007 and he came fourth in the first round. He’s now back on the fringes where he belongs.
So perhaps we can hope that the BNP’s success in the recent European elections and Griffin’s raised profile thanks to Question Time will actually be his downfall in the long term. Perhaps the spectre of an emboldened BNP will push more of us to vote than the mere 61% who turn out last time.