We have a guest of a most special sort today. Our dear friend Malcolm Harvey, a founding editor of Better Nation and more recently an occasional Thinker of Unpopular Thoughts, considers the real meaning of the Front National’s first round poll results in France.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in French politics, but I guess I know a little more than some. I’m what you’d call an interested observer of elections (which you would never have guessed from my previous involvement with this blog). I have to say though, I was a little surprised by – what I’d characterise as the – rather hysterical reaction to Marine Le Pen’s polling 18% in the first round of the Presidential election.

The first thing which should be pointed out is that this was only the first round. The French use a run-off system to decide their President. The first round is open – and there are often as many as 10 candidates to choose from. The two candidates with the highest share of the first round vote go forward to a second (and final) round two weeks later. So voters have what you might call more freedom – they can make their first vote a vote for their clear preference, or make it a protest vote, with the knowledge that the President will not be decided until the second round.

We’re often hearing (from the likes of John Curtice) that the Scottish electorate have become much more “sophisticated” in their distinguishing between UK, Scottish, European and local authority elections and altering their votes accordingly – and it would appear the French are equally knowledgeable about how to best operate their electoral system.

The second thing I’d point out is that Marine Le Pen’s party – the Front National – are not the party of her father. Though they do maintain what would colloquially be described as a “right-wing” ideology, since she took over the presidency of the party has had much more of an economic – and dare I say it, populist – focus. A Eurosceptic, Marine Le Pen advocates French withdrawal from the Eurozone – and also opposes free trade, supporting a form of protectionism instead. In a time of economic recession, when the EU has proved unpopular and the Eurozone itself is falling apart, you can understand why this would be a popular position, and one which voters might well support.

But it isn’t only an economic position. It is a position which is consistent with what, for want of a better phrase, would pass for French nationalism. Until very recently, France was the epitome of a centralised state, to the point that regionalism was totally disallowed and the use of distinct regional languages (Breton, Basque, Occitan) was actively stamped out. There was “one France”. The point I’m emphasising here is that the French nation was above all else. And while this policy has been discontinued, the attitude – the primacy of Frenchness over others, the protection of the “one France” – remains in some places, and can go some way to explaining a vote for the Front National.

Of course, there will inevitably be those who subscribe to their anti-immigration views. But to characterise this as a “rise of fascism” is, I think, overstating the case. For the above reasons – the economic position of the Front National, and the fact that this was only the first round of the election – mean that categorising those who voted for Marine Le Pen as “extremist” or “right-wing” is somewhat simplistic. Indeed, some might even have been attracted to them for their anti-nuclear position (evidence for James that even those who would otherwise be beyond the pale can have some redeeming qualities!).

The majority of that 18% was, in my opinion, a clear protest vote. With the second round on 6 May, we’ll see what that 18% do. Perhaps some of them – those who feel that neither Sarkozy nor Hollande offer them a clear option – will stay at home. But many will choose their “least worst” option in the second round, an indication, perhaps, that while they wanted to display some kind of protest in the first round, they will return to a more moderate position in the second.