Arrest of IMF Chief could be BAD news for Muslims. GOOD news for France.

Writing at Slate, Anne Applebaum counters the conventional wisdom that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrest is great news for France’s struggling president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Foreign Policy (H/T Mark B)

Marine Le Pen, right wing National Front Party leader rising in the polls

But here is a prediction: Sarkozy will not benefit from Strauss-Kahn’s ugly demise. The main beneficiary will be the politician with the fastest-growing constituency in France at the moment: Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and now the leader of the uber-nationalist, anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front. Le Pen started polling higher than Sarkozy in March, not least because she offers populist economics and promises to prevent the number of North African immigrants from swelling. And she has good reason to believe in her chances: Once before, in 2002, Marine’s father unexpectedly wound up in a presidential runoff against the then-president, Jacques Chirac. Chirac won in a landslide, but the French establishment got a good scare.

 It’s pretty unlikely that, with Strauss-Kahn out of the picture, Socialist voters are going to switch their allegiance to the Front. Even if there’s a surge in anti-establishment support for Le Pen, it’s probably not going to be enough to deliver a first-round victory. In a runoff between Sarkozy and Le Pen, left-wing voters will have to hold their noses and vote for Sarkozy just as they voted for Chirac against Marine’s father in 2002.

That said, the arrest would seem to be bad news for one constituency: immigrants. If the scandal cripples the Socialists, the far-right may come to be seen as Sarkozy’s primary competition in the race, meaning the president will have to pander even more to anti-immigrant sentiment. As Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse wrote in March about Sarkozy’s recent denunciations of “multiculturalism” — which hasn’t, in any case, been official policy in France for years — as a transparent ploy to appeal to supporters of the Le Pen family’s brand of right-wing politics.

The understandable urge of European leaders to watch their right flank has the potential to backfire politically. Government leaders have amplified the anti-Islam discontent by making it official and respectable. The “national identity” and burqa debates in France were blatant overtures to the National Front electorate. But as Le Pen himself once observed, voters tend to prefer the original to the photocopy. Sarkozy’s strategy, far from containing the far-right challenge in France, appears to have vindicated the National Front’s long-time insistence on the Muslim threat to French identity. For example, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter who has recently taken over leadership of the party, now leads in some polls for the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. She recently quipped, “A little more blah-blah about Islam and laïcité, and I’ll soon be at 25 percent” in the polls. This is exactly what happened.

With Le Pen already taking full advantage of the Strauss-Kahn scandal, you can expect Sarkozy to accelerate his pandering and more measures along the lines of the recent burqa ban.