Inside Story

France’s unwelcome choices

The National Front’s surge could deliver the French presidency to Marine Le Pen in 2017, writes Tim Colebatch. But the electoral arithmetic might change after Sunday’s regional results

Tim Colebatch 8 December 2015 1527 words

Springboard to the presidency? National Front president Marine Le Pen reacts after the announcement of the first-round results of the regional elections on 6 November 2015. Denis Charlet/AFP Photo

The uprising among European voters against established parties has taken a new step. Greece moved first, throwing out its major parties to bring in the upstart populist leftists of Syriza. On Sunday week, Spain might do something similar when it votes to elect a new government. And now it seems possible that France in 2017 could vote in a president from the outcast National Front.

At the weekend the Front surged above the ruling Socialists and the centre-right Republicans to win the first round of voting for France’s regional governments and assemblies. From a low point of just 4.3 per cent in the national elections of 2007, the Front has been soaring in recent years. All the new issues are working for it: the flood of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, unemployment climbing towards 11 per cent, and growing fears of extremists within France’s large Muslim minority.

The party leader, forty-seven-year-old Marine Le Pen, has refurbished the old brand after wresting control in 2011 from her ageing father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an old-fashioned racist who thumped the table about law and order and cutting back government. She has disowned his anti-Semitism, swung the party’s economic line from anti-government to anti-market, and campaigned on keeping out migrants, protecting jobs, and taking France out of the eurozone.

And then came the terrorist attacks in Paris on the night of Friday 13 November. Until then, the polls had shown a narrow lead for the traditional centre-right party, now renamed the Republicans, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. After the attacks, the Front took the lead.

In six of the twelve regions on the French mainland, it led the polling at the end of the first round. The second round of voting takes place on Sunday, and there is a good chance that in at least three of those regions – across northern France, and in southeastern Provence – the Front will form the new government.

It would be a huge step up for a party that has just two of the 577 seats in France’s National Assembly, despite forty years as a second-tier political force, and currently runs nothing bigger than a few small city councils. In France, the regions are a pale version of our states: while they lack ultimate autonomy, they run schools and public transport, and decide infrastructure investments. They have power.

If Marine le Pen emerges as head of the new northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, as seems likely, it could become a springboard for her ambition to be elected president of France in 2017 – at this stage, probably in a runoff with Sarkozy.

And if she is joined in government by her niece, twenty-five-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a smart Sorbonne-educated lawyer who won a commanding first-round lead in southeastern Provence, and by the man they call her “right arm,” Florian Philippot, in northeastern Alsace? This would signal that high unemployment and distrust between French traditionalists and Muslim migrants have combined to produce a sea change in the country that gave birth to modern democracy.

France’s move would follow a stream of similar shifts among disillusioned voters elsewhere in Europe: the rise of Syriza; the rise of the left-wing Podemos and the liberal Ciudadanos in Spain, which has left the traditional right with just three of Spain’s thirty largest cities; the rise of the UK Independence Party; the rise of the populist Danish People’s Party to be the largest party in its governing coalition; and so on.

France has followed a similar pattern. The National Front swept across the traditional heartland of French industry, between Paris and the Belgian border. As French competitiveness has sunk because of costly over-government and resistance to change, factories are slowly shutting down and unemployment is in double digits. Youth unemployment is 25 per cent, and polling suggests that the biggest support for the Front is among young working-class males who feel the system has let them down.

Yet it’s more complicated than that. This was just the first round of an election for regional governments in a country where regions are just one of three lower tiers of government. (President François Hollande recently merged twenty-two regions on the mainland into just twelve, citing efficiency issues.) In the second round of voting, only the three main parties will be left in the contest – and the results could be quite different.

As reported, the percentage split of votes on Sunday was:

National Front – 27.7
Republicans – 26.6
Socialists – 23.1
Minor parties – 22.6

But sort the minor parties into broad ideological camps and you get a rather different story. Two-thirds of their votes were for the Greens and other left-of-centre parties; if many of those voters turn out next Sunday to vote for the Socialists – or against the Front – that would change the outcome. And if more voters turn out, that too would make quite a change.

Suppose we count the votes not as a share of the formal vote, but as a share of the voters enrolled, the percentage split of Sunday’s voting looks very different.

National Front – 13.3
Republicans – 12.8
Socialists – 11.1
Minor parties – 10.7
Did not vote – 52.1

(Non-voters include 2 per cent who submitted blank papers or voted informal.)

On Sunday, 52 per cent of French voters abstained from the contest. In 2012, only 22 per cent abstained at this stage of the presidential election. It’s possible that the Front’s success in the first round will bring more people out to vote against it in the second. But the success of Marine Le Pen and her articulate, photogenic niece could also produce a bandwagon effect, as voters once scared off by the old Le Pen decide it’s now safe to embrace the new.

The Front’s prospects have been boosted by Sarkozy ruling out any deals with Hollande’s Socialists (or anyone else) to combine their numbers in the second round. To avoid splitting the anti-Front vote, the Socialists have unilaterally “retired” their candidates from the second round in the regions contested by the two Le Pens – a serious sacrifice, since they are giving up the chance of any seats in the two regional assemblies – but in Alsace, their candidate has defied a similar order to quit.

Sarkozy’s party topped the poll in four of the twelve mainland regions, including Île de France (Paris), and has a reasonable chance of overtaking the Front in the second round in two others. The Socialists came top in just two, but their hopes of winning more have been boosted since by a deal with the Greens and smaller left groups to merge their tickets for the second round in seven regions. This offers the smaller groups a consolation prize of seats in the new regional assemblies, and gives the Socialists, a serious chance of winning control in most of the regions.

If the second round result in France is hard to forecast, so is the outcome a week later in Spain. The latest polls, on average, report that the ruling conservative People’s Party has slumped from 44.6 per cent last time to 28 per cent. Its traditional rival, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, is down from 28.8 per cent to 22 per cent. Their lost votes have gone to two new parties: the left-wing Podemos (We Can), which dominated the local elections in May but has since dropped to 16 per cent, and the less threatening Ciudadanos (Citizens), a centre party that has risen sharply lately to average 20 per cent.

Every opinion poll since 2012 has pointed to a hung parliament; that much is certain. But what coalition, if any, can eventually be put together is anyone’s guess. In southern Andalusia, it took three months for Ciudadanos to throw its support behind the Socialists. This time it could be the other way around.

Spain, like most of Europe, is experiencing a gradual economic recovery. Per capita output grew 3.6 per cent in the year to September, four times the pace in Australia. Unemployment is falling, but it’s still at 21.6 per cent (and 48 per cent among the young), so resentment and alienation are likely to be felt at the polling booths.

France is one of the outliers; there’s a stubble of growth, but it’s now one of just three European countries where unemployment is still rising. Among its many strengths, France has a profoundly conservative attachment to its welfare state, rights and regulations, but that also reflects a broader cultural resistance to reform.

The Hollande government, which began by undoing some of the few reforms Sarkozy achieved, is an extreme example. Government spending is the second-highest in the Western world: 57.5 per cent of GDP last year, compared to 37 per cent in Australia. Paying for it is an expensive business that is putting French workplaces out of business.

In these times, being anti-immigration and anti-Muslim are two keys to the National Front’s success. But exploiting high unemployment and a popular resistance to change is another. •

Revised: Updated on 9 December to take in overnight developments.