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The FN on the threshold of regional government
By Jocelyn Evans, Gilles Ivaldi
11 December 2015 | General | 1249 words
Entirely as expected, the Front national (FN) has emerged as the most popular political party in the 2015 regional elections, winning 27.8% of the vote. With just over 6 million votes, the FN is nearing Marine Le Pen’s presidential high of 2012, besting all other election performances since 2010. In a contest marked by significant abstention (50.1%), the FN has demonstrated once again its effectiveness in getting its vote out.

The FN has taken the lead in six regions, with unprecedented scores above 40% in its traditional strongholds in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie (NPCP) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA). In the Eastern region of the country, Florian Philippot, the strategic mind behind Marine Le Pen, has polled 36.1% of the vote and, helped by the intransigence of a Socialist list leader refusing to stand down to avoid splitting the mainstream vote, could well make a third regional win for the FN in the three-way run-off next Sunday.

France’s crisis in a snapshot

Explanations for the FN’s electoral success have been well rehearsed. They concern both structural and shorter-term factors, from the state of the national economy and continuing unemployment to the EU migrant crisis, terrorism, the not-unconnected anti-Muslim cultural backlash and, above all, political alienation and growing public discontent with France’s elites.

Despite election promises to create more jobs, the socialist executive is still struggling with sluggish economic growth and rising unemployment (10.8% in October). The FN has achieved its best results among voters affected most by the crisis, in the working class and the lower salariat, while also making significant inroads among middle class voters who fear a drop in social status, and younger voters who are disproportionately affected by the poor jobs market. The rise of the French radical right is fuelled by fears of the current influx of refugees: last October, 63% of the country said that France couldn’t take any more asylum seekers, compared for instance with only 33% in Germany. Islamophobia existed as a worldview before 13 November, but the attacks have certainly solidified anti-Muslim feeling, as well as intensifying the public’s position on tough law-and-order and national security, with 40% of the French saying that they would support an ‘authoritarian regime’ in France. Finally, feelings of political alienation, distrust in politicians and dissatisfaction with democracy are widespread, chiming with the populist rhetoric of the FN. According to a poll conducted in February 2015, no less than 85% of the French said that politicians don’t care much about their problems.


Overwhelmingly national issues

Regional ballots, mid-electoral cycle, in France follow the pattern of voters punishing incumbents for poor performance, or more broadly ‘sending a message’ to their political leaders. Sunday’s elections were mostly fought on national issues, such as immigration, security and unemployment, all of which are far beyond the reach of regional government. With territorial reforms shrinking the number of mainland regions from 21 to 12, a new matrix administration system coordinating lower-tier councils, and an unwelcome combination of increased powers with reduced budgets, mainstream candidates found themselves campaigning with little in the way of concrete proposals for a governance structure that does not yet formally exist. (Not that campaigning necessarily did much – the most successful Socialist list, in Brittany, was led by a Minister of Defence entirely absent on the ground due to the state of emergency and Syria bombings.)

Little surprise, then, that overwhelming national issues have filled this void, and additionally freed the FN from having to demonstrate governing competence, allowing it instead to focus on the cultural issues it owns. The FN has gained electorally from bolstering its hardline stance on immigration and the fight against terrorism, while raising the spectre of the imminent Islamization of France and Europe. In the north, Marine Le Pen’s campaign material has blamed both the left and the right for the alleged ‘submergence’ by migrants and pledged that the FN would stop ‘bacterial immigration’. In the south, her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has revived her party’s old racist discourse, saying: “Here, we don’t walk around wearing djellabas, we don’t wear full veils, and we don’t put up mosques the size of cathedrals!”.


Rebranding populism

We should not overlook changes that have occurred in FN strategy. Marine Le Pen’s de-demonization has struck a balance between profiling the FN as a viable party alternative while still mobilising from a radical right position. Despite a clear intensification of its immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric in the past few weeks, the FN is no longer the political scarecrow it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen personifies this new breed of younger FN elite, showing both a more amenable face for the party and ideological continuity with the core policies of the ‘old’ FN.

While the terrorist and migrant crises have provided fertile ground nationally, the party has also managed to deliver a ‘regional’ version of its traditional programme by manipulating issues such as halting subsidies paid to ‘communitarianist’ – read ‘Muslim’ – associations and those providing assistance to migrants, the fight against political corruption and patronage in regional councils, and enhanced security on public transport. While in the past such campaign messages could be challenged on the grounds of competence – after all, where could the FN demonstrate governing experience? – the success of its strategy of localised entrenchment in winning seats on a number of town and city councils in 2014, including a number of mayoral positions in the South and East, has started to give the party a degree of credibility it previously lacked.


Second round expectations: maximum impact

A look at the electoral trends across Left, Moderate Right and the FN since 2010 shows an unprecedented three-way parity in vote share (see figure). Whilst the individual shifts are more complex, particularly with swings from the Left to Centre (formally affiliated with the Right) and from the Republicans (formerly the UMP) to the FN, in net terms the FN has benefited from the Left’s decline, with working-class frontistes the proportionately largest group of support, as well as losses from the Republicans of voters disappointed by the governing Right’s record, and open to the appeal of an FN legitimised precisely by Nicolas Sarkozy’s radicalisation of the party they are leaving behind.


Left / Right / FN balance of power since 2010




FN Regional scores (2015, 1st round)

Region

FN candidate

% FN vote

Nord-Pas-de-Calais et Picardie

Marine Le Pen

40.6

Provence-Alpes-Côte-D’azur

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen

40.6

Languedoc-Roussillon et Midi-Pyrénées

Louis Aliot

31.8

Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne et Lorraine

Florian Philippot

36.1

Bourgogne et Franche-Comté

Sophie Montel

31.5

Centre - Val de Loire

Philippe Loiseau

30.5

Normandie

Nicolas Bay

27.7

Auvergne et Rhône-Alpes

Christophe Boudot

25.5

Aquitaine, Limousin et Poitou-Charentes

Jacques Colombier

23.2

Pays de la Loire

Pascal Gannat

21.4

Ile-de-France

Wallerand de Saint-Just

18.4

Bretagne

Gilles Pennelle

18.2



Sunday’s second round is therefore potentially a watershed for the FN. With strong electoral support spread across the majority of French regions (see table), there must be the expectation of victory in at least one of the three possible wins in NPCP, PACA or the East. Given the division in approach of the mainstream, with two Left lists standing down versus the Eastern three-way run-off, the likelihood of a differential approach paying dividends in both cases seems unlikely. That the FN will also retain significant nuisance power, blocking the Republican landslide and disrupting ‘politics as usual’ in every other regional administration, even in the Ile de France where it performed least well, is secondary. The 2015 elections look likely to mark the coming of age of the FN as a party of albeit regional government.

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Welcome to '500Signatures', for analysis and commentary on French politics and elections

This blog is produced by Jocelyn Evans (University of Leeds) and Gilles Ivaldi (University of Nice)

 
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posts have been published
since 10 January 2012

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jocelyn Evans [@JocelynAJEvans] is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds

Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science based at the University of Nice

 
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CATEGORY
 
DATA

- Forecasting the FN vote in Second-Order elections (updated 12 May 2014)

- Forecasting the FN vote in Second-Order elections (Jan. 2014)

- Polling scores by polling type (CATI v CAWI) (updated 20 April 2012)

- Estimating Marine Le Pen's vote in the 2012 presidentials: an experiment (November 2011)

- Data for the 2011 expert forecast survey (in CSV file)

 

 


 
Last modified on Monday 25 April 2016
Copyright Gilles Ivaldi - @2012-2014