Le Pen's National Front Capitalizes on French Voters' Unease With Historic Gains

France's Jewish community will have to decide whether to cooperate with regional governments led by a party with a long history of thinly veiled anti-Semitism; but the real question is whether Le Pen can recreate this win at the national level.

President of the French far-right Front National party Marine Le Pen reacts to the results of the first round of the regional election in the Nord Picardie region on Nov. 6, 2015 in Henin-Beaumont.
AFP

The results of the first round of the regional election in France on Sunday represent the largest electoral achievement of the far-right in a major European country since World War II. True, the Freedom Party formed a government in Austria, and in Hungary racist Jobbick is the second-largest party, but they are not in France’s league. The National Front has never won more than mayoral elections in relatively small towns. But as of Sunday night the party not only received the largest number of overall votes, over 30 percent, but its representatives, including party leader Marine Le Pen, are now the leading candidates going into the second round of voting, in six out of 13 regions.

It’s hard to analyze just what an effect the terror attacks in Paris three weeks ago had on the election. President Francois Hollande’s personal approval ratings shot up in this period to over 50 percent, but his assured handling of the situation has not translated into gains for his Socialist Party, trailing in third place with only 22 percent of the vote. But this is an earthquake long in the making. The first major signs could be seen in 2002 when National Front founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came second in the first round of the presidential election, making it into the runoff against Jacques Chirac (where he was trounced). Then, in 2005, the French public once again surprised its politicians by voting in a referendum to reject the new European constitution, following a campaign which focused on “the Polish plumbers” coming to take French jobs. Later that year there were the riots in the suburbs, which were largely blamed on immigrants.

Marine Le Pen speaks after election results Reuters

Ever since, the National Front, under the more up-to-date leadership of the second-generation Le Pen has been capitalizing on the image of a France which has lost control both of its borders, to the European Union, and of its interior, to immigrants. The attacks and the fact that citizens went to vote under a state of emergency and increased security, could only have driven this message home.

The almost certain outcome of National Front-led regions also poses a major dilemma for the Jewish community in France. Until now, the representative body of French Jewry, the CRIF, has ruled out any engagement with the nationalists, due to the party’s long history of thinly veiled anti-Semitism, though Le Pen has tried to distance herself from her Holocaust-denying father. The only exception has been on local affairs in a tiny handful of towns, controlled by National Front mayors, where there are Jewish institutions, usually old cemeteries, as well. Regional governments have much wider jurisdiction and spending power, and a larger degree of cooperation will be almost unavoidable.

Le Pen's achievement isn't complete. A second round of voting will take place in a week, as no region has been won outright, but it looks as if the National Front will win in at least some of the regions, especially since former president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose conservative Republicans party came second with 27 percent of the vote, has ruled out tactical alliances to keep the nationalists out. But the real question is whether Le Pen can achieve the unthinkable, so far, and recreate this win at the national level in the 2017 presidential election. That still seems unlikely, but at this point, with an anti-EU and anti-immigrant wind sweeping Europe, nothing can be ruled out.