Ouf! France Dodges a Political Bullet

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French far-right party Front National president and top candidate for the regional elections in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region Marine Le Pen delivers her statement after the announcement of her defeat against right-wing party Les Republicains (LR) candidate Xavier Bertrand in the elections' second round, in Henin-Beaumont, northern France on December 13, 2015. 

Ouf! is the French way of representing a sigh of relief on the printed page. Shortly after the polls closed at the end of the second round of regional elections on Sunday night at 8 pm, the French emitted a loud collective Ouf! The extreme right-wing Front National (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, which had topped the polls in six of 13 regions after the first round of voting, failed to capture a single region in the second and decisive round. When the dust had settled, the center-right Les Républicains (LR), led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy had captured seven regions, while the center-left Socialists (PS), the party of President François Hollande, held on to five. (The remaining region, Corsica, went to Corsican nationalists.)

Nevertheless, relief cannot disguise the fact that the French electorate is in the grip of a deep malaise. The FN claimed its highest-ever share of the national vote, 28.3 percent. Le Pen’s party lost in the second round primarily because voters who had stayed home in the first round turned out in large numbers to say that their protest-by-abstention against the two mainstream parties should not be read as an endorsement of the extreme right. Participation increased by just over ten percentage points between the two rounds, from 49 to 59.5 percent, and most of those freshly mobilized voters voted against the FN.

In addition, left-wing candidates withdrew after the first round in the two regions where the FN seemed to hold a commanding lead, Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie (NPCP) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA). In regional elections any candidate obtaining more than 10 percent of the vote in the first round has the right but not the obligation to continue to the second round. This contrasts with the presidential election, in which only the two best-placed candidates proceed to round two. The Socialist Party’s decision to beat a strategic retreat in two regions encouraged left-wing voters there to set aside their misgivings and vote for the LR candidate in order to block the FN. In a third region where the FN seemed poised to win, Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine (or ACAL: the unwieldy regional names are a regrettable consequence of a recent territorial reorganization), the PS candidate rejected the party’s order to withdraw, but enough voters abandoned his ticket to ensure an LR victory.

The question remains: Was France’s sigh of relief warranted? On television Sunday night, the irrepressibly ebullient Marine Le Pen was slightly less ebullient than usual. After the previous Sunday’s voting, the FN seemed to have the wind in its sails. It had made good on its boast of being “France’s number 1 party,” having outpolled both the LR and the PS. Marine Le Pen herself appeared to be on the verge of taking over the presidency of the regional council in a part of the country that had long been a Socialist bastion. Although regional elections ordinarily arouse limited enthusiasm, Mme Le Pen’s relentless attacks on the two parties that have ruled France for the entire history of the Fifth Republic had turned this election into a referendum on the two most recent presidencies, Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s. Both presidents had to cope with the aftermath of the Great Recession, and both were hampered in their responses by their commitment to the European Union and the euro. Le Pen revived her party after taking over from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2011 by positioning herself as a strong opponent of the EU. She posed as the champion of French workers, whom she depicted as victims of the deflationary policies imposed by faceless technocrats in Brussels. She played on French fears that Germany had become the dominant power in the EU and was now dictating policy to France. When Angela Merkel sat beside François Hollande in the European Parliament, she referred to the French president derisively as Merkel’s “vice-chancellor.”

This apparent re-orientation of the Front National away from the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic positions for which her father was notorious is often advanced as the primary reason for the FN’s recent electoral gains. Marine Le Pen, many commentators argue, has successfully “de-demonized” the party. But in a perceptive study published earlier this year, Stanford literary scholar Cécile Alduy persuasively demonstrated that Mme Le Pen continued to call out to the party’s core constituency with more subtly coded versions of her father’s racist rhetoric while at the same time placing greater emphasis on France’s alleged forfeit of national sovereignty to the European Union. And political sociologist Nonna Mayer has shown that anti-immigrant sentiment is still the best predictor of support for the FN.

After the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, Mme Le Pen was therefore able to switch effortlessly back to a more overtly anti-immigrant line. She claimed, for example, that the mainstream parties’ embrace of the Schengen Agreement had left France vulnerable to “invasion” and “occupation” by endless streams of refugees. The fact that some of the Paris terrorists did join groups of refugees lent credence to this claim. Of course it is impossible to say how many people who voted for the FN in the regional elections would have done so even if the January and November terror attacks had not taken place. What is certain, however, is that many voters interviewed between the first and second rounds of the election mentioned anxiety about Islamist terrorism as a reason for voting for the FN for the first time. Whether this was a rationalization or an accurate assessment of their true motivations is impossible to judge.

These regional elections are the last major national contest in France before the next presidential elections in 2017. The regional results confirm what has been known for a long time, that both the PS and the LR face major challenges. It is possible, even likely, that only one of them will make it to the second round to face Marine Le Pen (as Jacques Chirac faced her father in 2002). Although President Hollande’s approval rating is abysmally low, no one in the Socialist camp has yet challenged his claim to be the party’s nominee. Alternative left-wing parties such as the Left Front and the Greens fared poorly in the regional voting, so they may be forced to consider a bargain with the PS despite deep differences on the issues and intense hostility to Hollande personally. The president’s best chance of surviving the first round of the presidential election is to hope that the FN continues to drain votes away from LR.

On the right there are deep divisions about how best to deal with the FN challenge. Sarkozy has continued the course he first adopted in his losing 2012 presidential bid, in which he veered sharply to the right and amped up his xenophobic rhetoric. In addition to continuing on this course in the regionals, he also refused to withdraw the LR ticket in regions where the PS ticket was in a better position to defeat the FN. Despite this refusal, the PS did drop out after the first round in two regions, thus helping to block the FN at the price of having no Socialist representation in those regions for the next five years. With this gesture, the PS may have reaped the goodwill of voters unenthusiastic about both mainstream parties but still motivated by a desire to keep the FN out.

By contrast, Sarkozy’s so-called ni-ni strategy (no alliance with the PS nor withdrawal in its favor) was contested within his own party, and Sarkozy, unlike Hollande, faces numerous rivals for his party’s nomination in 2017. One of the principal contenders, former prime minister and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, steadfastly opposed Sarkozy’s ni-ni. He is more broadly popular than Sarkozy in the country at large though not necessarily among the LR’s ageing electoral base. Younger LR militants are restless, however, and one of them, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, whom Sarkozy himself had appointed a vice-president of LR in order to paper over intraparty differences, was ousted from her position today for her vociferous public denunciations of the ni-ni policy. Not all young republicans are as outspoken in their opposition to the FN as Kosciusko-Morizet, but all recognize that Le Pen’s forces have now acquired such strength that they pose a threat to the continued existence of their party. They fear that Sarkozy’s decision to emulate the FN will play into Le Pen’s hands by encouraging voters on the right to “choose the original over the copy,” as Le Pen herself puts it. Yet they know that they must tread carefully if they are to win back the voters who have been moving into the extremist camp in ever-increasing numbers.

The good news from this past Sunday’s voting is that there remains in France a substantial reservoir of anti-FN sentiment. But one great unknown remains. Even with the heightened interest in yesterday’s election, turnout remained under 60 percent. In the presidential election it is usually close to 80 percent, so there remains about 20 percent of the electorate whose attitude toward the prospect of an FN victory remains untested. The 9-to-10 percent who voted yesterday but not the previous Sunday tilted heavily in favor of the mainstream alternatives to the FN. But that does not mean that the FN has no reserves. Indeed, it picked up an additional 200,000 votes in NPCP and 250-300,000 in PACA between the two rounds, according to analyst Joël Gombin. While it remains highly unlikely that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France, it is no longer unthinkable. That in itself should be prompting the mainstream parties to revise their approaches to the persistent European crisis. Unfortunately, both are still led by the two men most responsible for shaping those approaches, and Sunday’s results appear to have encouraged both to dig themselves into their respective positions more deeply than ever. A majority of about 70 percent continues to regard the FN as unworthy of power, but within that majority no consensus exists about the best way to combat it, and in the meantime it continues to progress.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sarkozy's so-called ni-ni strategy refers to his refusal to ally with either the PS or the FN. In fact, it refers to his refusal to ally with the PS or withdrawal in its favor. 

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