Le Pen Party Seeks to Use France’s Local Vote to Transform Image

Gregory Viscusi, Bloomberg, March 18, 2015

Steeve Briois is part of Marine Le Pen’s effort to put a new face on France’s National Front.

The mayor of the northern French town of Henin Beaumont doesn’t allude to issues his party is best known for: opposing immigration, the European Union and the euro. Instead, he talks about investing in schools and repairing park benches, cutting taxes and debt, critical concerns in local elections this month.

“The difference between us and our predecessors? Good management,” says Briois, 42, who, in addition to being mayor of the depressed town of 26,000, is the vice-president of the FN, as the party is known. “All it takes is a little common sense.”

As France votes on Sunday in the first round of local elections, the FN is seeking to convince the electorate it has transformed from a protest party tinged with racism and Holocaust denial to one that leader Le Pen says has a credible shot at the presidency in 2017. Working in her favor are a moribund economy, President Francois Hollande who has managed to stem the decline in his popularity without reversing it, a divided center-right, and expectations of record low turnout.

“We’re getting used to what was once unthinkable: that the FN can top the poll in nationwide elections,” said Jim Shields, head of French studies at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “These elections will not see the FN storm the gates of power, but they will be important in extending the party’s mid-level elite as Marine Le Pen seeks to rebuild it from the grassroots up.”

The National Front won the most votes of any party in last May’s elections for the European Parliament. In March 2014’s municipal elections it did well in the first round, but in the second round took control of only 12 of France’s 36,000 towns, including Henin Beaumont. A similar fate could await it in the second round of the departmental elections on March 29.

‘Enormous Chasm’

“Between votes won and seats won, there will be an enormous chasm as the FN succumbs again to the punitive effects of the two-round majority system,” said Shields.

In these elections, 98 of France’s 101 “departments” will be selecting 4,108 representatives to serve six-year terms on departmental councils. For this election, France is divided into 2,054 “cantons” and each one must select one man and one woman. If no one wins a majority this Sunday, the top two vote-getters in the first round face off the following Sunday.

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Among potential voters, about 31 percent plan to back the FN in the first round, compared with 29 percent for former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party and 20 percent for Hollande’s Socialists, according to a March 9 Odoxa poll. Odoxa interviewed 880 adults.

In the second round, the UMP will win by a “tidal wave,” Odoxa said, without predicting how many departments it would capture. The elections are something of a test for Sarkozy, who has made a comeback after saying he was quitting politics following his defeat in the 2012 presidential elections.

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“We can see a clear victory for the UMP in the second round, and a minor ebbing for the National Front after a first round that will be historic by any definition,” Odoxa President Gael Sliman said in a commentary accompanying the poll.

Socialist Party leaders have unanimously said they will ask their supporters to back UMP candidates in run-offs against the FN. The UMP is split about what to do if its candidates don’t make the second round. Sarkozy has said he won’t ask his followers to vote for the Socialists. Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe, who plans to challenge Sarkozy to be the UMP’s presidential candidate in 2017, has said he will.

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