Last Sunday night, two dozen journalists from the left-leaning online newspaper Mediapart were anxiously watching the returns from France’s first round of local elections. I joined them as an observer in their bare-bone industrial loft in the 12th Arrondissement of Paris that serves as their base. At 8 p.m. sharp, everyone fell silent, riveted, as colored rectangles started to stretch across the TV screen to represent the vote totals of the various tickets.
Then a sigh of relief: Public television channel France 2 was reporting that the far-right National Front (FN) came in third. All at once, everyone began talking, typing, throwing out bits of their analysis. Things were not as bad as feared! The FN failed once again to become the “first party of France,” as party leader Marine Le Pen had been promising it would since she finished first in last May’s European Parliament elections.
Then everyone fell silent and exchanged guilty looks: How on earth could a National Front at 25 percent (or 5.1 million voters) be considered good news?
For weeks, opinion polls predicted that the FN would continue its irresistible rise and grab up to 30 percent of the vote, leaving the traditional governing parties — mainly the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the Socialist Party — in the dust. On March 22 the FN matched the 25 percent it unexpectedly won in France’s May 2014 European Parliament elections. The party increased its absolute vote total by 360,000 and got four candidates elected from the get-go with tallies over 50 percent in their districts — quadrupling the number of its elected local officials even before the second round takes place March 29.
The rest of the country was strangely relieved by these results. Even the left seemed happy to see the UMP center-right alliance slightly ahead. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls commended himself for preventing the FN from becoming the “first force” in France, as if that were the only objective that mattered. Marine Le Pen duly noted the paradox, saying, “We have become so mainstream now that people are relieved when we do ‘only’ 27 percent,” she joked at a press conference shortly after the first estimates were released.
As district-by-district results began to filter in, the pathetic irony of that first sigh of relief became obvious. Welcome to the new normal, in which the FN not only represents a quarter of the country but also does markedly better in certain locales — 38.9 percent in the Var region, 38.8 percent in Aisne in the north. It was nothing less than a landslide in towns won by FN leaders in March 2013, such as Hénin-Beaumont (53.5 percent), Beaucaire (49.5 percent) and Cogollin (46.2 percent).
The next morning, a hangover: The National Front had never before shown so strongly in local elections. And it was gaining strength all over France’s electoral map — not only in its strongholds in the north and southeast and in rural and working-class districts but also in the west, in big towns, even in bourgeois neighborhoods usually immune to the far right’s attraction. Whatever its vote total, the FN has become a truly national presence rather than the impotent mouthpiece that Jean-Marie Le Pen founded in 1972. He contented himself with running for president every seven years, disturbing the political game in the interval with polemical outbursts against immigrants, gays or Jews. By contrast, Marine Le Pen, his daughter, has always understood that to win at the top, one needs to contest elections territory by territory, from the ground up. This “grass-roots” movement is no doubt directed from party headquarters, but it has been masterfully implemented by fresh faces in neighborhoods across the country.
“We are growing roots,” Marine Le Pen observed with a grin of satisfaction, with a reference to the party’s well-known platform in favor of “French by roots” and its opposition to the “unrootedness” of globalization and European integration.
Her local strategy paid off. The FN presented candidates in 93 percent of the country, more than any other party could muster, leading to an increase of 10 points since the last comparable local elections took place, in 2011. She convinced 5.1 million voters in the first round, and FN candidates will remain in the race to contest the second round of elections in more than half the precincts. By contrast, President François Hollande’s Socialist Party finished a disappointing third, with 22 percent of the vote, and has already lost over 500 districts (out of 2,054), where the next round will pit right against far right without any left-wing challenge. This was a historic win for the FN, one that might replace the bipartisan political system that France has known for more than 50 years with a new one in which three irreconcilable forces — National Front, right, left — fight for the pie.
But are they really irreconcilable? Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, now in the more modest position of UMP head, claims his party’s agenda differs starkly from the FN’s. For the next round of elections, he has ordered his troops to follow a strict neither-nor strategy: Vote neither National Front nor Socialist. That makes sense as a tactic at this point in the race. After all, as many as 538 of his candidates will have to beat the FN’s if they want to take office.
But how different are the UMP and the FN ideologically? In recent months, a few sensational defections from the UMP to the FN, notably in crime-plagued Marseilles, have made headlines. If the major parties continue to lose ground, more politicians might find themselves jumping ship to avoid drowning.
Ideologically, Le Pen’s and Sarkozy’s constituents are close enough that the number of voters with FN-style views on immigration or Islam is probably substantially higher than 25 percent. Didn’t Sarkozy outflank Le Pen just a few days ago when he supported a UMP mayor’s decision to forbid, in the name of laïcité (rigorous secularism), his town’s public schools from offering alternative meals to children who don’t eat pork? And on the left, didn’t the Socialist Minister for Women’s Rights Pascale Boistard publicly oppose the right of Muslim students to wear headscarves in colleges and universities?
A National Front that can consistently win 25 percent is bad enough. But the greater danger is that Marine Le Pen is winning the hearts and minds of more and more French citizens, regardless of whom they happened to vote for this time around.