Mainstream Baffled as French Turn to Far Right

AFP, October 14, 2013

France’s mainstream political parties were Monday scratching their heads over what to do about a surge by the Front National (FN) after a breakthrough by-election win for the far-right party.

The ruling Socialist party and the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, face humiliating reverses in municipal and European elections next year if the FN can sustain its current standing in the eyes of an electorate thoroughly fed-up with record unemployment, rising taxes and a perceived increase in crime and insecurity.

A poll published last week suggested the FN could emerge as the best-supported party in the European elections with 24 percent of those asked declaring themselves ready to back the party led by Marine Le Pen, the daughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

That shock survey was followed on Sunday by a spectacular victory for the FN in a local by-election in Brignoles, where FN candidate Laurent Lopez claimed 53.9 percent of the vote in a run-off against the UMP candidate.

“The left and the mainstream right are blaming each other for what is happening, but the reality is they’ve both been knocked sideways,” said Nonna Mayer, the Research Director at the National Research Centre CNRS. “Neither of them know what to do.”

There were particular, local factors in Brignoles which influenced the outcome of a vote being held for the third time, the result having been judged too close to stand on two previous occasions, when the run-off was between the FN and the Communist Party.

The southeastern town has struggled with high unemployment since the closure of local aluminium mines in the 1990s and the gloomy economic backdrop has exacerbated tensions between established residents and a large community of North African immigrants, creating fertile ground for the FN in a region where it traditionally does better than elsewhere in France.

But the scale of the victory for Lopez was nevertheless widely interpreted as an indicator of how the FN is capitalising on current voter concerns to appeal to a broader slice of the electorate than ever before.

A smartly-dressed former businessman, Lopez, 48, is the perfect embodiment of the more voter-friendly image that the FN has projected since Marine Le Pen took over from her controversial father at the head of the party in 2011.

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Marine Le Pen, has worked hard to dispel the image of the party as fundamentally racist.

She has expelled activists who make bigoted public statements and the FN lists in next year’s municipal elections will include a handful of ethnic minority candidates.

All of which is making it harder for the mainstream parties to prevent the FN from winning more than a handful of elected posts by treating it as a pariah party and urging their voters to cast their ballots tactically to keep them out of power, an approach referred to as the “Republican Front”.

“I think we can safely say the Republican Front is now dead,” Marine Le Pen declared after Sunday’s triumph in Brignoles, and her opponents acknowledged that she was probably right.

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