The second and final round of elections in the 13 regions of France was always going to produce a win-win situation for the far-right FN. By capturing even one region, they could announce the end of a two-party system, and then seek to govern soberly in the run-up to presidential elections in 16 months. If they were to be blocked through tactical voting and fail to obtain any of the several winnable regions, they could denounce two-party collusion, present themselves as the denied voice of the people, and continue to blame France’s woes on lies, the government, the EU, the IMF, immigrants, globalisation, establishment, etc. etc, in preparation for a 2017 re-run.
In the event, seven regions were won by the Right block, five by those on the Left, with Corsica taken by a nationalist candidate. No region was captured by the FN: in the key strategic seats, Marine Le Pen came more than 15% behind the centre-right candidate Xavier Bertrand in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region; her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen lost by almost 10% in the Southern ‘PACA’ region against the right-wing mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi; while Le Pen’s strategy guru Florian Philippot was beaten by 11% in the North-Eastern region of Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine.
Inevitably, everyone claimed victory. Ignoring that in terms of overall votes it had effectively come third, the socialist government emphasized how it acted in the nation’s interests by sacrificing its third-placed candidates to guarantee an anti-FN vote. The Right, pointing to an overall score of almost 40%, claimed improvement on its previous regional situation and presented itself as the uncompromising alternative to the FN. Meanwhile, the FN could say that its overall 30% vote was the most emphatic result of the election, making it clearly the people’s opposition, even though it had actually failed to win a single region. So, crisis as usual, then.
However, when the racket of competing and often indistinguishable claims of unity and vigilance has died down, and the obvious candidacy pitches for a presidential primary from the main candidates on the Right (Sarkozy, Fillon, Juppé and Le Maire) have all been digested, four ongoing elements in the French landscape will none the less clearly work to the benefit of Marine Le Pen’s FN.
Firstly, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. French unemployment is stuck above 10.5% and likely to nudge 11% in 2016, affecting 25% of youth (rising to 50% in some banlieues). The ‘forgotten people of the Republic’ as Le Pen terms them, will be given strong explanations and solutions by Le Pen, that point unfavourably to the governing socialists’ uncertain version of austerity and the equally unpopular liberalism of Sarkozy’s conservatives.
Secondly, social and political circumstances will continue to help the FN’s explicit and subliminal scapegoating. Economic downturn is the fault of a disloyal banking elite (there’s more than a hint of longstanding anti-semitism in this idea). Leaky border controls are the reason one has to be hard-line about immigration (ignoring the home-grown nature of terrorism). Unemployment and factory closures are the work of multi-nationals or uncaring Brussels bureaucrats who hate ‘French first’ protectionism. Terrorist attacks prove the need to reassert ‘French’ traditions, values, and pork-rich school lunches. These are easy oppositional tricks typical of right-wing populism anywhere.
The third element involves Le Pen’s ongoing plan to de-demonise the FN, by distancing it from the racist and anti-semitic associations of her irascible father who founded the party. The more he now criticizes her, the more she appears reasonable by comparison. Bringing on people like the civil servant Philippot or the blond law graduate Maréchal-Le Pen also serves to make the party more mainstream, media savvy, unthreatening, even attractive, certainly in contrast to the ugly past.
Finally, the FN contrasts with a procrastinating President whose government lurches from one policy failure to the next; and a re-styled but unreformed conservative alternative still led for now by a divisive Sarkozy whose preferred position is being squeezed between a ‘war’ president and an anti-immigration party. On Right and Left, ongoing internal rivalries also contrive to confirm the FN’s basic message that the established parties are united only in maintaining their own privilege. Given the downbeat reactions to the latest results, both Socialists and Republicans know instinctively that they will not be allowed any more to just ask the people to vote negatively. Given the lack of any obvious new strategy by the major parties, who both appear to be locked into an unenviable position, the next 16 months could produce a crisis of disaffection that further boosts the FN’s ratings and continues to make a national breakthrough a real possibility.
Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, and Professor of French,
University of Warwick, UK