In the aftermath of the opening round of France’s latest regional elections, all of the talk was focused on Front National. The far-right party had come out on top, having gained just under 28% of the vote thanks to endorsements from more than six million French citizens. Many thought that this initial success would result in at least a quarter of the country’s regions falling into Front National hands. However, tactical voting in the second round and a concerted effort by the two main parties, the Socialists and Republicans, stopped the far-right party in their tracks, denying them the opportunity to win control of any regions. But hidden beneath the initial jubilation of France’s moderates is a hint at what may possibly be waiting just round the corner. Indeed, with the presidential election just two years away, support for the far-right is growing. Citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated with a political elite that, in their eyes, continues to fail them.
As the second-round results poured in, it became clear that the Socialists’ and Republicans’ method of tactical voting had denied Front National from gaining any regional presidency posts. The Socialists’ decision to withdraw their candidates from Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the regions contested by the two Le Pens, created a two-horse race that the Republicans won in both instances. Nevertheless, such maneuvering was unable to hide the significant gains that Front National has made in recent years.
The first round of voting saw the far-right party record its highest ever share of the national vote in a local election. Whilst initial success did not convert into regional presidency posts, the significant and wide-reaching share of the Front National vote (they won 27.36% of second-round votes) shows that their growth in popularity is starting to have a major effect on the two main parties.
This was particularly true in the north-east of the country, where Front National gained significant support in the first round of voting. Once a bastion of the Left, the old industrial centre of France has gradually shifted to the Right due to high unemployment and continued anger regarding the ongoing refugee crisis. This was clear to see in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the centre of the crisis and the region in which Marine Le Pen chose to stand. In the first round, Front National gained 41% of the vote.
With Le Pen’s lead so great, the Socialist candidate for the region, Christophe Castaner, agreed to step down and implored his first-round supporters to lend their votes to Republican candidate Xavier Bertrand in an attempt to create a “republican dam” to stem the Front National tide. Helped by a united front against the far-right party, Bertrand then went on to win the presidency with 57.7% of the vote, leaving Le Pen, who increased her share by 1%, defeated in second place.
However, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie was just one of many regions to witness a surge in Front National support, helping to grow the party’s overall share of the vote from little over 9% in 2010 to 27.7% this year. The battle for Bourgogne-Franche-Comté became a fierce three-horse race in the second round, resulting in Front National’s Sophie Montel finishing just 2.24% behind eventual winner Marie-Guite Defay. Meanwhile, despite a concerted effort by the two main parties to stop her, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen put up a tough fight against Christian Estrosi in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, finishing in second place with 45.22% of the vote, the highest of any Front National candidate. There were also strong showings from the far-right party in both Centre-Val de Loire and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine. The party ultimately finished in second place in a third of the mainland regions.
Front National’s rise has clearly caused panic amongst the two main parties, both of whom reluctantly came together in an attempt to halt the progress of the Le Pens. It was a significant turnaround by Republican president Nicolas Sarkozy, who, in the wake of the first-round results, adamantly announced that he would “neither withdraw nor fuse” with any other party in the second round. His reasoning was sound; a partnership with the Socialists would, in the eyes of those that had been lured in by Front National, only help to validate Marine Le Pen’s oft-expressed view that there is little difference between the two main parties. Her positioning of Front National as a populist party fiercely opposed to the ruling elite has allowed Le Pen to attract support from across the political spectrum and amongst all social classes. This is demonstrated by the high share of the vote that the party gained in the slightly more affluent south as well as in the relatively poor and de-industrialised north.
The eventual deal struck between the Republicans and the Socialists and the subsequent method of tactical voting that kept Front National away from power now risks playing into the hands of the far-right party in the build-up to the 2017 presidential election. In the aftermath of the regional elections Le Pen was quick to use the tactics of the two main parties to her advantage, saying that the Republicans and Socialists had embarked on a “campaign of calumny decided in the palaces of the [French] Republic”. Le Pen was also quick to reiterate her view that the two main parties are now one and the same, claiming that what the results “revealed with no possible ambiguity were the hitherto occult connections of those who claim to oppose each other but who, in reality, share power without ever resolving your [the electorate’s] problems, and, worse, lead the country from one mandate to another into submersion and into chaos.”
Despite their inability to win any regional posts, Front National still made significant gains in the country’s regional assemblies, where they tripled their number of councillors to 358 and will now have a presence on all councils rather than on only half, as was the case before the recent election.
However, this year’s regional elections have shown that Front National still face an uphill battle for power. When presented with a direct choice involving two candidates, the majority of the French electorate – in both the north and the south, it is important to add – are still reluctant to give their vote to the far-right party. Le Pen is predicted to reach the second round in the 2017 presidential election, just as her father, Jean-Marie, famously did in 2002. Yet, as long as voters to the Left of Front National are ready to unite and back a rival candidate, it is difficult to see how she will be able to win more than 50% of the popular vote.
Consequently, Le Pen’s presidential hopes are dependent on her potential rivals. As last week’s results indicated, Socialist supporters were willing to back Republican candidates in order to quell Front National, but there is no guarantee that Republicans will lend their votes to Socialists if presented with a clear choice between Le Pen and François Hollande. The most recent presidential election opinion polls show that a second-round fight between the incumbent and Le Pen would be far closer than one involving Hollande and Sarkozy or Le Pen and Sarkozy (the latter of whom would, on average, win by roughly 20%).
There is no doubt that Le Pen is aware of this, and will attempt to tone down her far-right rhetoric in order to woo Sarkozy supporters who are sceptical about lending their votes to Hollande.
The two main parties have managed to keep Front National at bay for now, but one thing is certain: Le Pen won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.