By Sarah Thin
‘French National Front defeated’, declaims the BBC; ‘Front National thwarted in bid for historic victory in French regional elections’, writes the Telegraph. Following the striking success of the extreme right-wing in the first round of the regional elections in France last month when the Front National made history by finishing ahead of all other political parties with almost 30% of the vote and coming first in 6 out of 13 regions, there seems to be a palpable sense of relief amongst foreign commentators. Let us all rejoice that democracy has prevailed and the threat from the ‘evil fascists’ has been overcome. A comforting image.
Unfortunately, however, this represents a misunderstanding of the electoral system and of the situation in France; the reality is much more troubling. Following the first round of voting, the various political parties make a series of agreements and alliances which allow the larger parties to gain a majority vote in the second round. The result is therefore deceptive. The Front National (FN) was never expected to win many, if any, seats in the second round due to the fact that they have no allies, and that the other major parties will always see each other as the lesser evil. The FN did not lose votes; indeed they increased their share in certain areas, notably in Calais. The fact that they currently hold no regional seats does not in any way undermine the fact that they can count nearly a third of the country as supporters. Compared to a share of the vote of around 10% only 4 years ago, this represents not only a dramatic and rapid surge, but also the best result in their history. The FN have not been defeated; for them, this is a victory.
Support for the FN has risen inexorably since Marine Le Pen’s implementation of a policy of ‘de-demonization’ following her takeover at the head of the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011. A once marginal and extremist group has become increasingly normalised on the French political scene. Supporters of the FN first began gleefully labelling themselves the ‘premier parti de la France’ (‘first party in France’) following their majority (25%) share of the vote at the 2014 European Parliament elections. The results of the first round of these regional elections only served to add more authority to this claim of the title.
A large proportion of their followers are inevitably attracted by the nationalistic, anti-immigration policies espoused by the FN. This is all too familiar to many other European nations. In a time of economic instability and high unemployment, such politics regain their popularity. Indeed, the FN’s most striking results this week (Nord-Pas-de-Calais et Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, in both of which the FN managed to secure over 40% of the vote) are both areas with high rates of immigration. A large proportion of the far-right vote comes from the so-called ‘popular classes’ and the less well-educated. What is perhaps surprising to us, however, is the relative youth of the FN’s support base. In the first round of these regional elections, 35% of 18-24 year-olds voted FN (14% more than for any other party or alliance).
Adopting the term ‘l’UMPS’ to describe their two main rivals (a construct made up of l’UMP, the old name for the main centre-Right party, and le PS or Parti Socialiste, the centre-Left party by President Hollande), they emphasise the lack of difference between the two main parties and hence the failure of the two-party system. As such, the collaboration of the major parties during these elections to deny the FN entry into regional power can be seen as playing into the hands of Marine Le Pen. Where is the choice in a two-party system when the two supposedly opposing parties not only resemble each other politically but also go into partnership to exclude challengers to their exclusivity? Furthermore, the question of representation arises: Marine Le Pen has long criticised poor representation of FN deputies and senators in the French legislative assemblies compared to the national level of support. A question can legitimately be posed whether it can truly be democratic that a party with 30% of the overall vote in a regional election is left with no representation.
What is it that attracts voters, especially young voters, to this kind of politics, considering that the young, especially, have become disillusioned with politics? Despite the popular image of demonstrations and strikes, there are very few political student movements, and those that exist rarely involve more than a handful of members. The rate of abstention in elections has risen significantly over the past several decades, especially amongst the young. ‘The young vote FN out of a rejection of politics, of a disgust and mistrust of politicians. As a young politician, it’s sad to observe this – but that’s the way it is.’ Clément Laforge, the 21-year-old municipal councillor is a representative of the ruling Parti Socialiste and is greatly disquieted by the result.
More broadly among voters the appeal of the FN stems from the challenge it poses to the established order. Marine Le Pen’s charm is rooted in her defiance: in her refusal to be politically correct, or to tolerate anyone who is. In a political landscape where the mainstream Right has become such a muddle of warring ideologies – whether religious, economic or social – that it is no longer clear what they stand for, and in which the mainstream Left have drifted so far into neo-liberalist economics (and, increasingly, securitisation) that many would say they no longer merit that denomination, the FN presents itself as an alternative.
Fearful eyes now turn to the presidential elections set for under 2 years’ time. ‘The FN is taking hold, developing a durable position in French politics,’ explains Monsieur Laforge. ‘We can no longer permit ourselves to deal with them in the same way that we have done for decades.’ A ‘shock’ poll conducted in October found that 31% would consider voting Le Pen. This week’s results prove not only that support is strong but that it is growing rapidly. There may now be a real chance that we shall see the swearing in of ‘Madame La Présidente Le Pen’ in 2017.
Photograph: Blandine Le Cain via flickr