France’s National Front Struggles to Turn Popularity into Power

Ingrid Melander, Reuters, March 31, 2015

France’s National Front scored its best ever local election result, but its hopes for power remain thwarted by widespread distaste for its anti-immigration policies and an election system that allows voters to block it from office.

The far-right FN won one in four votes in the first round of local elections on March 22, its highest score ever. In the second round last Sunday, it secured 62 councillors in 14 departmental assemblies, less than 2 percent of councillors nationwide but a big jump from the single councillor it had before.

Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged the “lasting upheaval” the FN had brought to an electoral landscape dominated for decades by a center-right and a center-left party.

But FN leader Marine Le Pen had hoped to top the party’s unprecedented victory in last year’s EU elections and the strong showing in the first round of the local elections with another milestone: obtaining control of one or two departments. That did not happen.

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Le Pen blamed her party’s failure to win any department on election rules that she said were “made to prevent the FN, and therefore its voters, millions of French people, from having elected officials”.

France’s two-round system, where individual candidates need to attain a threshold to reach the first-past-the-post final round, does indeed put at a disadvantage parties such as the FN who fail to strike alliances with others.

Although some in ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP would be tempted by deals with the FN, both Sarkozy and the Socialists have ruled out alliances with a party that wants to take France out of the euro and is still viewed by many in France as too right-wing to be acceptable.

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Building a network of local officials is key to promote Le Pen’s bid for the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections. Her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had been content with being an outsider in national polls, but his daughter wants power.

In a telling sign that an FN presence on the center stage of politics has become normal, the party’s recent successes did not provoke a mass outcry such as in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential vote.

His breakthrough took France by surprise and hundreds of thousands took to the streets to march against the FN. By 2015, its leaders have become a regular feature on news shows and supporters readily appear on TV.

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