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Prof Seán Hand: French elections shocking to many commentators, but predictable

Road to Nowhere. France’s regional elections will create cliff-hanger for Presidential Run-Off

Seán Hand

France’s regional elections pragmatically decide who controls local budgets for schooling or public transport, but symbolically they act as a litmus test for the Presidential elections in 2017. Last Sunday’s first ballot in a two-stage process put the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU party the National Front or Front National (FN) ahead in six out of 13 regions in France, and nationally in front of both socialist and conservative rivals with an overall vote of 28%.

While this first result was called shocking by many commentators, it was predictable not just as a reaction to recent terrorist attacks, migrant crises, and the continuing sluggishness of the French economy, but as an effect of the long-term strategy of the FN’s leader Marine Le Pen to distance the party from its racist and anti-semitic past intimately associated with her father and the FN’s provocative founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. This pursuit of mainstream respectability is epitomised in the figure of Marion Maréchal Le Pen, niece of the FN leader. The 26 year-old blond law graduate is currently poised to take the Southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA) in the regionals.

Many already believe that the Presidential elections will see Marine Le Pen in a straight run-off against the conservative challenger Nicolas Sarkozy, former President and national leader of Les Républicains (LR), or possibly a socialist candidate in the form of current incumbent François Hollande or Prime Minister Manuel Valls. So the decisive vote on Sunday 13 December will determine not just whether the FN wins control of a region of France for the first time in its history, but what the battle tactics and even the likely canidates for the Presidential election will be.

The week separating the two ballots has therefore been dominated by tactical decisions, key being is the socialists’ decision to withdraw every candidate coming third in the first round in order to produce a straight fight between the FN and the candidate on the Right. Sarkozy as LR leader immediately ruled out doing the same, however, ostensibly for principled reasons but in reality since the LR were ahead in four regions as opposed to a socialist lead in only two, and since his abiding concern is to look pugnaciously presidential. It is a typically high-risk and self-obsessed strategy.

Tactical voting of this kind could just about stop either of the Le Pens from winning control of her region, according to latest polls. This has produced traditional nationalist and republican gestures as well as some unhappy bedfellows. Without a hint of irony, Marion Le Pen denounced all such pacts as undemocratic and ‘state defamation’, following this up with a threat to sue the French state over the migrant situation in ‘abandoned’ Calais, which lies within her region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie. Meanwhile, her more overtly xenophobic niece contemplates defeat through left-wing support for the conservative mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi, a man who has advocated internment camps for suspected Islamist radicals, but now presents himself as the candidate of the ‘resistance’ and French republican values. Elsewhere, dissent within socialist ranks and ongoing slanging matches between candidates expose the merely survivalist nature of all such tactics.

Whatever the outcome on Sunday, then, it is likely that the run-in to the Presidential election will see France’s serious socio-economic issues confronted by more rhetoric rather than real reform, a general competition among all mainstream parties to talk tough on national and security issues while continuing with disastrous mission creep abroad, and a violent sense of disaffection among the French electorate for a self-perpetuating political class completely bereft of ideas and real vision. In the centenary year of a wartime French military mutiny, 2017 could be a crisis moment for France.

11 December 2015

Seán Hand, Head of School of Modern Languages and Cultures and Professor of French Studies, University of Warwick, UK.

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