PARIS - One question hovered over Sunday’s second round of regional elections in France: Would the extreme right succeed in maintaining its first-round lead and reach unprecedented positions of power? Or would this possibility rouse voters to turn out en masse and create a “republican roadblock,” a joint left-right front that would block Marine Le Pen’s National Front?
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The seriousness of the moment did indeed increase voter turnout, to 58.5 percent, from around 50 percent in the first round. And the “roadblock” in fact blocked Le Pen’s road. She was defeated in her own northern region of Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, winning only 42 percent of the vote, compared to 58 percent for center-right candidate Xavier Bertrand. Her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, was defeated in her region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (55 to 45 percent). And the National Front’s No. 2, Florian Philippot, lost in the Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine region.
The bottom line is that not a single French region fell to the extreme right. All the regional presidents are from either the traditional center-right Republican party or the Socialist party.
Bertrand, the Republican candidate who beat Marine Le Pen, accurately summed up what had happened in his victory speech immediately after the exit polls were publicized. “I thank the leftist voters who supported me and brought me this result,” he said.
France proved last night that even if the National Front has become a major political force, it still can’t reach the finish line in political races when the rest of the electorate shakes off its apathy.
Nevertheless, the shock that France got from the National Front’s victory in the first round last week will undoubtedly cause cracks in the existing political structure. The political elite in Paris found itself in an unprecedented situation: It looked in the mirror, and for a moment it saw the radical right.
What will happen next?
French political pundits were already drafting possible scenarios Sunday night. One of the most popular was a “big bang” scenario, in which the Socialist party would dissolve, abandon its left wing and set up a new, broader political movement that could attract the center.
The person mentioned as most likely to head such a project was Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He won points Sunday by urging members of his own party to vote for the moderate right in regions where this was necessary to block the National Front.
In contrast, the Republicans’ leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, was badly damaged by his party’s poor results last week, which were virtually unprecedented for an opposition party facing a deeply unpopular president who has failed to reduce high unemployment. Sarkozy was also criticized for his electoral tactics, which included repeatedly winking at National Front voters – “there’s nothing illegitimate about your vote, it’s just that Le Pen’s platform won’t solve the country’s problems” – and refusing to reciprocate Valls’ gesture by urging his own voters to back left-wing candidates if necessary to block Le Pen.
In the second round, Sarkozy’s Republicans won some 40 percent of the vote, outpolling both the Socialists (30.6 percent) and the National Front (28.8 percent). But that was only thanks to the left-wing voters who supported Republican candidates in certain regions.
Consequently, these elections may result in a challenge to Sarkozy’s position as the moderate right’s presidential candidate in 2017.
As for the big loser, Le Pen, she immediately announced that this election was just the opening shot of the presidential race. “I thought that France had three large political camps, but it turns out there’s only two: Us against everyone else,” she added mockingly.
And she rightly noted that the rise in the National Front’s vote count from election to election has been impressive. In regions where elections just took place, the party will have three times as many seats on the regional councils as it did before.
Lembach, in the Alsace region, has about 1,600 residents. About half of them can vote, and of these, a third supported the National Front. But it seems they voiced their protest in the first round, and that was enough. They trickled into city hall to vote again yesterday, but unlike in the first round, there were no signs of a hard-fought election.
Pundits have poured out floods of words to explain the National Front’s first-round victory, but to the owner of Lembach’s bakery, the explanation was simple.
“People have had it,” she said. “They no longer want to see the politicians of recent years, those from the old parties; they don’t believe them. This town has more unemployed people than working people. The government takes care of those who work – bonuses, long vacations, pensions, social benefits – but nobody takes care of the unemployed. After they use up their unemployment compensation, they’re erased from the rolls. Add to this the fear of terror, and how far it’s gotten ...”
Pointing to a tray of baked goods, she continued, “This is from yesterday. In the past, we’d recycle it, or mix it with food for the animals. But today, people don’t have money, so they buy what’s left over from yesterday at a discount.”
Lembach is a beautiful town very close to the Maginot Line, the string of fortifications France built between the two world wars. At another moment of truth in a very different era, the Maginot Line failed to halt a very different kind of fascism. But Sunday, the “republican roadblock” succeeded.