In the first round of the French regional elections on 6 December, the far right Front National (FN) came first with 27.96 per cent of the votes, thereby leading in six out of 26 regions. As could be expected, this result caused panic among the two mainstream parties, the ruling centre-left Socialist Party and the centre-right Republicans.
Yet, the result was not final as France has a two-round voting system. During the second round of the regional elections on 13 December, the FN failed to win a single region. Instead, the Republicans increased their share from 26.65 per cent to 40.63 per cent and the Socialists from 23.12 per cent to 29.14 per cent. Still, the Socialists’ and Republicans’ joy was somewhat restrained. Republican leader and former president, Nicolas Sarkozy said now was the time ‘for in-depth debates about what worries the French’, noting security concerns, high unemployment figures, and frustration with the European Union.
Islamophobia and Europhobia
Some national and international media were quick to point their fingers to the Friday 13 November attacks in Paris where Islamist terrorists killed 130 people. They argued that the rise of fear and Islamophobia might have caused people to vote for the Front National.
It is true that since its foundation in 1972, the FN has campaigned against an open society. Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen is openly racist and anti-Semitic, and once described the holocaust as a ‘detail’ of the Second World War.
Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, who became party leader in 2011, has toned down the language, thereby avoiding the aggressive stances of her father. This strategy has been described as the dédiabolisation, which loosely translates as devillification.
Still, the FN’s positions have not shifted very much since its foundation. The party is still tough on immigration, arguing that France should leave the EU’s Schengen zone where workers can move freely. Much of the FN’s anti-immigration discourse is directed against Muslims. In 2010, Marine Le Pen gave a speech in which she compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France in World War Two. The FN also continues to campaign against France’s membership of the Euro and calls for the dissolution of the Eurozone. The party is also socially conservative and has led the campaign against gay marriage and gay rights more generally.
Under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, voting for the FN has become more acceptable among French voters. Le Pen mainly appeals to blue-collar and lower middle-class voters who live 30–40km outside of big cities and dream of climbing up the social ladder. The FN has become increasingly popular due to high levels of unemployment and rising social inequality. Over ten per cent of French workers are currently unemployed, which is double the amount of UK workers. What is more, the governing political class is very unpopular, and French voters have little trust in the mainstream Socialist Party and the Republicans. Hence, voting for the FN is also a way of protesting against the ruling elite, which is seen as privileged and far removed from ordinary people.
FN panic: we’ve been there before
The FN’s success has been incremental. For instance, the party came first in the 2014 European parliamentary elections where it won 24 seats. To be sure, regional and European elections tend to be ‘second order national contests’ where people vote with their heart because the results matter less than those of presidential or parliamentary elections. Therefore, those people who voted for the FN in the recent regional and European elections might change their mind in 2017 when a new president and parliament will be elected.
Still, the French have not forgotten that in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the final round of the presidential elections, causing panic and embarrassment among the mainstream parties. Marine Le Pen stands a good chance in making it through to the second round in 2017. But if these elections tell us anything, the French are not quite ready yet to send a FN politician into the Elysée Palace.
Dr Isabelle Hertner
Lecturer in German and European Politics and Society
Department of Political Science and International Studies
Director of the Graduate Centre for Europe
University of Birmingham