Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

Why is France’s far right flourishing? C’est l’économie, stupide!

Analysis: National Front’s electoral win is a symptom of long-term social crisis rather than response to Paris attacks

Sunday’s electoral surge by France’s far-right National Front may have come on the heels of the Nov. 13 ISIL attacks in Paris, but its roots lie in a deeper economic and social crisis that the mainstream parties of the left and right have been unable to solve.

Once a marginal party, the anti-immigrant, EU-phobic National Front (FN) recorded its best-ever electoral performance in Sunday’s regional vote. Its 29 percent of the vote was the largest share by any party, and it looks set to capture as much as half of France’s regional governorates in the Dec. 13 runoff. More important, FN leader Marine Le Pen believes the result shows that her party can win the presidential and legislative elections 18 months from now.

There is good reason for Le Pen’s optimism and mainstream parties’ corresponding concern. The FN’s commanding leads in two regions and first-place finish in four others renders obsolete the idea that the party’s previous gains were simply an expression of ephemeral protest voting. The rise of the far right under Le Pen’s leadership, analysts say, has permanently altered France’s political landscape.

“We now have a tripartite [political] system,” wrote editorialist Jean-René Lore in L’Est Éclair on Monday, after final counts showed the FN’s national score bettering the 27 percent by an alliance of France’s main conservative and centrist parties and the 23 percent by leftist lists headed by President François Hollande’s governing Socialist Party.

The success of the FN in shedding the pariah status it earned under founder Jean-Marie Le Pen to become a more modern-looking, less extreme-sounding force in French politics under his daughter Marine Le Pen has been as continual as it now appears definitive.

“Marine Le Pen has repositioned the party — and, very importantly in symbolic terms, repudiated her father — and is now occupying territory that mainstream parties of the left and right have left vacant,” says political analyst Stéphane Rozès, the president of the CAP consultancy in Paris.

“She has staked claim to the ideal and defense of the nation — long the domain of conservatives — and also champions social [welfare] positions that the left used to occupy,” he notes. “The rise of the FN is less a factor of the French electorate becoming more extreme right in its outlook but rather Marine Le Pen delivering messages voters aren’t hearing from other parties.”

That ascendancy has been aided by the ruling left’s inability to kick-start France’s sluggish economy or bring down an unemployment level, stubbornly stuck above 10 percent — challenges that confronted conservatives before they were removed from power.

But the FN’s success has also arisen from disenchantment with establishment politicians in France and Europe who have proved as divided and ineffective in dealing with the refugee crisis as they were in handling Greece’s debt drama. The apparent lack of intelligence sharing that allowed perpetrators of the Paris attacks to cross into and around Europe undetected has boosted support for the FN’s anti-European, anti-Schengen and anti-Muslim positions.

“There’s a feeling among voters now that French presidents and governments, whether left or right, are limited in what they can do by external forces,” says Rozès. “That has coincided with a rising voter focus on the importance of national sovereignty and control of its destiny — aspects within an aggregation of drawing a wide range of voters from across the political and social spectrum to Marine Le Pen.”

The response of mainstream politicians to Sunday’s results reflected their disarray. Leaders of the ruling Socialist Party immediately announced the withdrawal of its candidates from three-way run-offs in which conservative-centrist contenders stand a better chance of beating FN candidates. Nicolas Sarkozy, a former president and the current leader of the conservative Republicans party, just as quickly refused to reciprocate the Socialists’ move in regions where the left has the stronger hand for the second round.

The protests from the Socialists may have been predictable, but Sarkozy’s refusal to make common cause against the FN provoked discomfort among his centrist allies, who demanded the withdrawal of all third-place competitors in each regional races in order to deny Le Pen’s party victory.

According to Rozès, under Le Pen the FN has tripled its share of the vote in eastern and western France and has attracted demographic groups that once shunned it as taboo. Recent polls found 35 percent of 18-to-24-year-old voters — traditionally Socialist acolytes — planned on voting for the far right. The phenomenon is not confined to the working class base in which the party took root. Rozès says, “Fully 25 percent of all senior executives now say they vote for the FN.”

For those reasons, he and other experts say the once fanciful prospect of Le Pen’s winning the presidency in 2017 has become feasible. So, too, is the prospect of the FN winning a parliamentary majority — or a large enough minority to force hard-right conservatives into a ruling alliance.

Despite the FN’s rising fortunes heading into the Dec. 13 regional runoff vote, some observers note that the party could yet be derailed by a larger turnout. About 50 percent of France’s 44 million eligible voters didn’t participate in Sunday’s vote — including nearly two-thirds of the 18-to-24-year-old electorate. “Abstentionists are now by far the largest party in France,” notes Jérôme Glaize in an editorial in Monday’s Presse Océan daily.

A massive mobilization of that silent French majority may now be the key to the mainstream parties’ keeping Le Pen and the FN out of power.

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