French 'Old Politics' in Disarray as National Front Leads Regional Elections

With the second round of voting looming, the ruling Socialist Party will not contest three regions in which the far-right has an unassailable lead.

Cartoon: Marine Le Pen riding an ISIS motorcade driving through Paris' Arc de Triomphe.
Amos Biderman

BRUSSELS – The victory of the far-right in the first round of France's regional elections was the subject of virtually every television show on Sunday night.

Despite it being only the first round – with most regions likely to hold second round voting next week – the commentators hastened to connect the political turmoil to the terror attack in Paris three weeks ago, along with a loss of trust in the political system, the government's failure to reduce unemployment and the wave of refugees in Europe.

The central question now is whether the advantage gained by Marine Le Pen's National Front in six of France's 12 regions will be enough to crack the bubble surrounding France's political elite, from both left and right, and put an end to their traditional hoarding of jobs and benefits.

Migrant men walk past posters of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in Calais on Monday.
AFP

A good example is Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Socialist candidate for the presidency of Brittany, who, in addition to the important election campaign he had to run last week, was also responsible – as Defense Minister – for the state of emergency in France and the French air campaign against ISIS bases in Syria.

The French public hates the practice of ministers and other senior officials also serving as parliamentarians, mayors or members of regional councils, but it's a very widespread practice. A significant proportion of French politicians are graduates of the prestigious universities known as Grandes Ecoles, and they look down on the graduates of lesser institutions, helping each other to achieve political advancement.

At least part of Le Pen's support came from public dislike of such behavior.

The French media kept its head stuck firmly in the ground on Monday, as if the writing had not been on the wall for a long time already. The conservative newspaper Le Figaro ran the headline "The Shock" across the full width of its front page.

"This rage comes from far," it wrote in its editorial. "It's been bubbling for 30 years on the fire of public frustration and governmental failure."

"The vote for the National Front has always been its most extravagant expression. It tripled itself from one regional election to another and it is now the unquestioned first party of France.

"That is a leap into the unknown, the political repercussions of which will be felt long after the second round. Political France is now divided into thirds."

 Le Parisien newspaper published le Pen's picture alongside the headline "The Front at the Gates of Government."

"For weeks now, the polls have been predicting this wave, but it nevertheless comes as a surprise," wrote Le Monde in an editorial. "One-and-a-half years before the next presidential election, it is also extremely worrying."

"How did we get to this point? How could a reactionary and xenophobic party, motivated, whatever they say, by anti-Republicanism and bearing demagogic and dangerous messages, be regarded as the answer to more than one-in-four voters?"

The political system, on the other hand, reacted to the result with less of a question mark than an exclamation mark. Socialist Party First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadelis convened the party bureau on Sunday night and, after a meeting that lasted only 20 minutes, announced the withdrawal of the party from second round voting in the three regions in which Le Pen has an unassailable lead, so as not to split the vote against the far-right.

The anger among party activists and voters in those regions came to a head on Monday morning when the party's candidate in Alsace-Lorraine, Jean-Pierre Masseret, threatened to disobey party orders and continue with the campaign. Marine Le Pen's response was to describe the Socialist move as "collective suicide."

The effect of the party's radical decision will be that there will be no Socialist representations in those regions for the next six years and millions of party activists and voters have been left disappointed in regions that have deep Socialist roots.

The withdrawal was announced without negotiation or coordination with the Republican Party, which will now contend with the National Front alone. Party leader Nicolas Sarkozy is opposed to any political partnership to stop the National Front, despite the disappointment suffered by his own party in the first round of voting – taking the lead in only four regions.

There was great and justified celebration at National Front headquarters on Monday night. It was the peak of the party's electoral performances, which in recent years has been restricted to 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote.

Constituency gerrymandering and a "winner takes all" voting system ensured that the front succeeded in winning only two of the National Assembly's 577 seats in the 2012 elections. There was also another factor at play in those elections: Local cooperation between the left and the moderate center-right. Part of the electorate regarded that as an attempt by old politics to retain its privileges.  

There could be further developments before Tuesday at 6:00 P.M., the deadline for submitting changes to the Central Elections Committee. Sarkozy is likely to be under pressure until then. The question remains unanswered at this stage is whether concern about the far-right taking control of the regional system will bring out additional voters – beyond the 50 percent who voted in the first round. Only they will be able to change the situation.