Front National Support Is Changing France’s Political Landscape

Alberto Nardelli, Guardian, December 7, 2015

The far-right Front National (FN) won the first round of France’s regional elections on Sunday, taking 28% of the vote and topping the polls in six of the country’s 13 mainland regions.

Although it is not the first time the party has come first in a nationwide vote, the scale of Sunday’s result is unprecedented. Here are the numbers in context:

  • Marine Le Pen’s party won more than 6m votes. In 2010’s regional election, the party won 2.2m votes, while in 2004 it claimed 3.6m.
  • In 2014’s European parliament elections, which marked the first time the FN had come first in a nationwide contest, thje party received 4.7m votes.
  • Although Le Pen won more votes in 2012’s presidential election (6.4m), turnout then was 79.5%. On Sunday it was 50%. Her father and the former party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, won 4.8m and 5.5m votes respectively in 2002’s two rounds when he lost to Jacques Chirac in a runoff.

As well as its size, Sunday’s result is striking because it signals a breakthrough in how the FN vote is spread across the country.

The maps below compare the results with those in 2010’s regional elections: the Socialist party (PS) and its allies are marked in pink, the far left in red, the centre right (now Les Républicains, then the UMP) and allies in light blue, and the FN in dark blue:

Tempting as it may be to connect the FN’s spectacular showing with last month’s terror attacks in Paris, the party was ahead in the polls before the atrocities that killed 130 people. In fact, its popularity has been increasing for some time–at the departmental elections held earlier this year, it won 5.1m votes, a more than 25% share.

What happens next?

The second round takes place on 13 December between candidates who won at least 10% of the vote in the first round (but less than the 50% required to have won in a single round).

FN goes into the vote ahead in six of the 13 regions. Although it is highly unlikely it will win all of these, how many it does end up controlling may well depend on the decisions the PS and Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains take over the next few days.

Les Républicains and its allies had a disappointing election, winning 27% of the vote. While the PS took only 23%, the party did better than polls predicted.

Sarkozy has already said his party will not withdraw from any second round contest, while the PS has said it will pull out of races where the party is a distant third. However, there is no clear consensus within the two parties. In Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, the PS candidate, Jean-Pierre Masseret, who came third, has said he will not withdraw.

The two regions the FN could win are Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, where Marine Le Pen, won 40.5% of the vote, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, gained 40.6%. The Socialists are expected to drop out of both races. However, this will probably not change the expected outcome, as nearly all non-FN voters in the first round would need to turn out again and vote for Sarkozy’s candidate. This is unlikely.

The FN also stands a strong chance in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. The party came first there with 32% of the vote in the first round, while the centre right (24%) and socialist vote (23%) is split and a formal alliance is improbable.

The contest in Normandy is expected to be extremely close after the first-round vote was split three ways.

The numbers suggest Les Républicains will comfortably win control of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Pays de la Loire. Île-de-France could be a more complex race, while Sarkozy’s party should win Centre-Val de Loire despite coming behind the FN candidate in the first round.

The Socialist party will almost certainly control Bretagne (Brittany), where the defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was comfortably ahead in the first round. The PS is also expected to win in Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes and might be able to overturn a first-round deficit in Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées.

What does all this mean for 2017?

Sunday’s second-round elections will tell us a little more about the depth of FN support and how supporters of other political forces split between Le Pen’s party and France’s two mainstream political outfits will vote when faced with a runoff contest. This will be particularly interesting with a presidential election due in 2017.

A Le Pen presidency remains extremely unlikely. Although she leads in most first round presidential polls, the FN candidate is well behind–by 60% to 40%–in the most realistic runoff scenarios.

However, FN support is clearly on the rise and it is not clear where its ceiling is. Between the previous regional vote in 2010 and the 2012 presidential election, support for the party nearly tripled in terms of votes won.

But what is clear is that France today is a very different country from that of 2002: back then, the two main parties, the Socialists and the centre right, were united against the FN, resulting in a landslide for Chirac.

By winning control of a region, the FN will for the first time be governing administrations with populations in the millions. To date, the party has only controlled towns with populations in the thousands.

FN-controlled Hénin-Beaumont has a population of 26,000. Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie has one of nearly 6 million–a different ballgame. How the responsibility and scrutiny of government plays out for the FN will go a long way in determining the shape of French politics over the next two years and beyond.

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