7 Dec 2015

How the outcasts of French politics have joined the mainstream

Did the apparent political unity that ensued after the terror attacks represent only affluent Paris rather than the concerns and fears of France as a whole?

Three weeks after the terrorist attacks that shocked the country, the French have once again made their voices heard, writes Paris Producer Alex Ohrn.

Yet the images of the nation crystallising around an attack on their cherished values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité have given way to a much more sober and daunting realisation as polls closed on Sunday evening.

The provisional results consecrated the far-right Front National’s historic gains in the first round of the regional elections. With near 30 per cent of the overall votes, the FN came first in six of 12 regions. A major advance compared with the 11 per cent in scored in the 2010 regional elections.

Although recents polls suggested that the Front National was set to make gains, the current mood in France has certainly played in their favour. Since the attacks, the traditional themes of the far right, such as immigration, security, Islam and national identity, have dominated the discourse.

So much so that earlier on Sunday, as I was casting my vote in central Paris, the young women next to me explained to her children the importance of voting. She was voting against the ideas of the Front National and their visions of France. A little too advanced to explain to a four-year-old, I thought. Yet, it is somehow representative of the disconnect between the affluent Parisians and the overall mood throughout the country.


However, it would be wrong to solely attribute these gains to the current mood. Over recent years, Marine Le Pen (pictured above) has managed to bring a once outcast political party into the mainstream, building on the voters’ concerns over economic and social issues.

Shortly after the polls closed, a smiling and jubilant Marine Le Pen claimed the FN was the “first party” in France and called on voters to confirm their support next week.

Marine Le Pen scored nearly 41 per cent in the northern region of North Pas-De-Calais-Picardie, one of France’s poorest areas, severely hit by a declining industrial sector and high unemployment.

Traditionally a socialist heartland, Marine Le Pen has over the recent years strengthened her political reach and could take control of the region next week. In the port city of Calais, the FN has benefited from the refugee crisis, winning over 50 per cent of the vote.

The Front National’s strong gains highlight a growing rejection of the French political class. If the FN maintains its lead in the next round on 13 December, it would cement the party as a major political force and turn France into a three-party system, breaking away from the traditional socialist-mainstream right rivalry.

French regions have a significant impact over transport, education and development, but, more important, the significant advances of the Front National are an indicator of the political mood in France and the need for the political elites to reconnect with their electorate.

Beyond the immediate gains, Marine Le Pen hopes the results will boost her chances in the 2017 presidential election.

The reaction from the mainstream political class is unequivocal. Both the left-leaning parties and the mainstream right party, Les Républicains, want the road barred to the FN in the second round on 13 December. Yet, the question will be how far the mainstream right and left are willing to go to block the political ascent of the Front National. Political intent and strategies vary.

In past elections, the right and the left have concluded alliances, but Nicolas Sarkozy said clearly on Sunday evening he would recommend his party, Les Républicains, does not form any alliances. Warning those who voted for the Front National that they would not obtain anything from that party, he positioned himself and his party as the only real alternative to the Socialist party.

However, in pursuing such a line, how far would he be ready to cajole the FN’s electorate and bring the far right’s ideas into the political mainstream? In second place and with around 27 per cent of the vote,  Les Républicains scored a lower percentage than expected and if the party decide not to conclude any alliances, they will have to make an effort to mobilise their electorate and win FN votes in the second round.

On the left, despite Hollande’s near 50 per cent popularity in the wake of the Paris attacks, his party failed to translate that into political gains, with the Socialists winning a mere 23 per cent. Stéphane Foll, the government’s spokesperson, sought to minimise the result, highlighting the fact that accumulated votes for left-wing parties neared 36 per cent.

Left-leaning parties and the Greens are expected to secure a much higher percentage in the second round, but over the next week the executive and the Socialist party will have to redouble their efforts to attract these voters, mobilise the high number of voters who abstained and withdraw candidates where needed.

Taking note of the results, the Socialist party has already announced it will withdraw its candidates in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in an attempt to thwart a resounding victory for the Front National.

Nevertheless, projections suggest the Front National could win three regions, the Republicains four and the Socialists two – if confirmed, a forecast that would significantly reshape the French political landscape.

Paris is still adorned with displays proclaiming the eternal values of the French Republic, but the scenes in La Place de la Republique feel in sharp disconnect with the political reality that has set in. Memories of a short-lived political union now seem a fading memory.

Questions are abundant. Did the apparent political unity that ensued after the terror attacks represent only affluent Paris rather than the concerns and fears of France as a whole?

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