Yves Herman / Reuters

Defeated for now, French far right still sees bright future

Analysis: Marine Le Pen’s National Front won no regions in Dec. 13 elections, but long-term political trends bode well

Many French voters and political leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief Sunday night at results showing that the far-right National Front failed to win control of any of the nation’s 13 mainland regions. Yet the FN’s inability to follow its stunning first-round success on Dec. 6 with a single regional victory Sunday represented only limited success for mainstream parties that had mobilized voters to counter the far right’s electoral surge.

Though the main objective of preventing the FN from capturing its first ever regional council was achieved, many commentators believe that France’s political establishment — and even French democracy — was not strengthened as a result.

“Everyone lost this election, especially French voters who only cast a ballot against something — against the FN taking power, against ruling Socialists, against opposition conservatives,” says Thomas Guénolé, a political scientist and professor at Sciences Po in Paris. “These are voters suffocating from the lack of choices and alternatives offered by mainstream parties, and who have been forced to cast ballots for candidates they don’t believe in order to block an FN that they dislike even more. They want to be able to vote for something once again.”

That vote for what many in the political establishment and among voters see as the lesser of evils undercut the fortunes of the FN, which after finishing first round balloting ahead in six regions could win none of those Sunday. Final counts showed leftists — who had controlled almost all France’s regional councils — retaining five councils, while alliances between conservatives and centrists upped the center-right stake to seven.

But the defeat of the FN also relied on the left withdrawing candidates in races where conservatives had the only real chance of thwarting the fortunes of Marine Le Pen’s, the FN’s leader. It was also aided by enormous efforts by mainstream parties and much of the French media to get the nearly 50 percent of voters who abstained on Dec. 6 to cast ballots against the FN in the run-off.

That collective effort led Le Pen to denounce “a campaign of calumny and intimidation … of childishness and manipulation” by the French mainstream against her party.

“There are some victories that shame the winners,” echoed Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, after she lost a race for the southern region covering Nice and Marseille that she looked certain of winning only a week before.

Yet despite the weekend success in halting the FN’s regional ambitions, it was evident also that the battle to halt the party’s rising fortunes are only just beginning.

“The danger of the extreme right has not been removed — far from it,” warned Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Valls’ analysis about the political fortunes of the FN is well founded. Despite the intervening campaign to thwart the party’s advances, the FN still increased its total vote count by nearly 800,000 votes between rounds to nearly seven million.

While it may not have won control of any regional council, the FN’s seats on those bodies will now more than triple to 356, in some cases giving it decisive voting power. And though it could not repeat its first round feat of being the top vote getter, the FN’s considerable 27.4 percent was still the third largest of all — within striking distance of the left’s 29.1 percent share.

Mainstream politicians like Valls and conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy responded to the results with humble messages of having understood voter demands for new policies, new thinking and new faces as an alternative to the FN.

Yet the return to partisan bickering and electoral calculating by career politicians from mainstream parties was evident even before Sunday night ended.

Guénolé, the political scientist, says that suggests traditional parties are neither ready nor able to glean other lessons from Sunday’s result beyond the FN’s defeat.

Valls’ ruling left lost most regions it governed due to voter disgust with policies — specially business-friendly economic positions. But Socialist leaders appear unlikely to alter their policy course on the logic that because leaders feared even worse defeat Sunday, public dissatisfaction with their political program isn’t as bad as thought.

Conservatives are similarly determined to stay their current course, Guénolé says, despite only modest gains in regional balloting that opposition parties usually dominate as voters seek to punish ruling parties.

“It’s already back to business as usual – including for the FN, which will point to mainstream parties sticking to the same positions and policies they always have as proof the only way change will occur is for voters to blow the political establishment up,” said Guénolé. “The public, meanwhile, will go back to waiting for prince charming to come along without really believing he will, then vote for the wolf in deception of that savior failing to materialize.”

Sticking with the status quo for the establishment parties, therefore, risks playing right into the FN strategy of current political problems growing ever worse.

Following the deadly Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, any new incidents of similar ideological violence — in France or elsewhere — risks driving more frightened voters to the FN’s Islamophobic stance, Guénolé notes.

Failure to address Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis, economic stagnation and rising concerns about the negative impacts of globalization could similarly strengthen the FN’s hand before presidential and legislative elections in 2017 — tests Le Pen looked to Sunday night in telling disappointed backers “nothing can stop us.”

There is some basis for Le Pen’s enduring confidence. A Harris Interactive poll taken Sunday night indicated that were presidential voting to take place now, Le Pen would easily qualify for the run-off round no matter which potential candidates represented other parties.

But the same survey also showed Le Pen losing by fairly large margins against all likely second-round rivals. That could change, however, if the concerns that are luring voters to Le Pen’s orbit continue apace over the next 18 months.

“The FN counts on the political elite playing its usual game, and the very strong and growing voter disgust with mainstream leaders intensifying from that,” said Guénolé. “Stopping Le Pen and the FN will require leaders to confront challenges facing them in innovative and effective ways. But recent history suggests that’s not likely to happen.”

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter