PARIS — Still in a state of emergency, France held the first round of crucial regional elections on Sunday. The polls are seen as a major test for President François Hollande and his ruling Socialist government. They are also a bellwether for the 2017 presidential elections.
The center-right Republican Party, led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, was expected to take most of the 13 regions. Marine Le Pen and her far-right Front National (FN) party, however, turned out to be the victors, taking over 28.6% of the national vote, and leading in 6 of 13 regions in France.
For the first time in the party’s history, the anti-immigration and anti-Europe FN is poised to govern an administrative region. There will be a run-off election this Sunday (December 13th) where the leading parties in each region will vie for political seats on France’s regional councils.
While President Hollande’s popularity surged following the terrorist attacks, this has not translated into support for his party, as the Socialists finished third at 23.5% of the popular vote, behind Sarkozy’s mainstream center-right Republicans who gained 27%.
This was the first vote since last month’s deadly attacks that saw 130 killed. But, there’s more to the FN’s success than simply riding a wave of fear over terrorism and immigration.
For example, Marine Le Pen, 47, won with more than 40% in the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, once a bastion for the Socialist and Communist parties.
With six million inhabitants, the region is the third most populated in France, though also the poorest. It was also one of the hardest hit areas during the de-industrialization period of the 1970s and 80s. Eighteen percent of the population still lives below the poverty line.
“This was one of the most industrially dynamic areas of France,” says Dr. Oleg Kobtzeff, an associate professor of International Politics at the American University in Paris.
“However, with the rise of globalization, the result is that industrial regions such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais were incapable of withstanding the outsourcing of jobs to countries where it was cheaper to manufacture and produce.”
The region’s unemployment rate is around 13% and local animosity towards the ruling Socialist party has been building for years, as many feel betrayed by a stagnant economy, unemployment, and high taxes.
In blue-collar regions such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais, however, many feel equally disenfranchised by President Sarkozy’s pro-business and free trade government that, they feel, aided in the region’s decline to begin with.
“The problem is the center-right Republican Party offers no solutions, they are perceived by many in the working class as the ones who moved the industrial jobs overseas,”—said Kobtzeff, “…at the same time people feel neglected by the Socialists, what’s left—The Front National, and that’s why they’re winning.”
In an effort to garner support in the region, Marine Le Pen, has portrayed herself as a protector of the workers and farmers, and advocated typically leftist policies such as public services, welfare, and anti-globalization policies. In March 2014, the party won several cities in the municipal elections.
This year’s European migrant crisis has seen thousands of refugees and migrants arriving from the Middle East and Africa seeking asylum and better lives in Europe.
Over 6,000 of them have found their way to Calais, one of the largest cities in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. The city, which overlooks the narrowest point in the English Channel, is home to the refugee camp known as “The Jungle.”
Most of the refugees live in makeshift tarpaulin shelters. From Calais, they make nightly attempts to clandestinely cross the Channel via train, truck or ferry.
A recent report called the squalid conditions in the camp “diabolical” and local residents have long complained that the refugees are responsible for a rise in crime, in addition to the lowering of property values.
That anger has turned towards the national government, which is seen as doing shamefully little to address the crisis.
The FN is galvanizing enormous support among these disenfranchised voters on a ticket of nationalism, economic protectionism, anti-immigration, and Euroskepticism.
Founded in 1972 by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN struggled as a marginal party for nearly a decade.
“The origins of the FN were an amalgamation of mostly nationalists and other far-right party members including colonialists, monarchists, and Nazi collaborators,” said Henri Besson, a political science researcher at the Université Robert Shuman in Strasbourg, “Their cultural roots have always been stemmed in bigotry and hate.”
Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted several times for violating France’s anti-hate speech laws, once for stating that the Nazi occupation was not “particularly inhumane” and another that the Nazi gas chambers were “a detail” of the Second World War.
Since assuming the leadership of the FN in 2011, Marie Le Pen has worked to soften the party’s image, including expelling her father in August. Yet, she has also courted her fair share of controversy.
In October, Le Pen appeared in court on hate-speech charges when, during a political rally in 2010, she compared Muslims praying in the streets of Paris to the Nazi occupation.
In January, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, her popularity soared.
Now, amid speculation that some of the 13 November terrorists arrived with the influx of refugees, Le Pen has all the ammunition she needs to sow xenophobia, sitting from the comfortable position of “I told you so.”
The FN offers little more than simple solutions to seemingly intractable social and economic problems, which will always strike a chord with malcontented voters.
Deporting refugees isn’t going to solve France’s 10% unemployment rate, which has existed since the mid-1990s, nor will cutting off the rest of the world, by instituting economic protectionism, revive France’s already stagnant economy.
Moreover, France is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, which makes up nearly 10% of the population. The nightmare of racial tensions and social instability, already an issue, would only increase under a FN national government.
At this point, the only possibility to avert a FN victory may be to form a coalition between the socialists and the moderate right. It’s happened before.
In the 2002 presidential elections, almost all political parties united to ask their constituents to vote against Jean-Marie Le Pen who, unexpectedly, made it to a run-off election against Jacques Chirac.
In a rare showing of national reconciliation, Chirac won in a landslide with over 82% of the vote.
However, this may not be possible again. Immediately following Sunday night’s elections, Sarkozy refused any alliance with the Socialists even if it was to prevent a National Front victory in the run-off elections.
“At this point the whole world has to realize that it’s going to be one country after another. Le Pen’s victory in France will encourage the extreme right in the UK, Germany, Hungary, Sweden etc.,” — said Dr. Oleg Kobtzeff,
“At this point, there is no reason not to expect a possible victory of the Front National in the 2017 presidential elections.”
Ryan Blum is an American freelance journalist based in Paris. Twitter: @ryanblum1.
Photo is public domain (CC0 1.0)