National Front Points to France's Third Way After Regional Vote

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Le Pen's National Front Embraced by French Voters
  • Hollande's Socialists relegated to third place behind Sarkozy
  • Elections were held amid high security with army patrols

Marine Le Pen’s victory in the first round of France’s regional elections suggests that voters have moved beyond a rejection of the mainstream parties to embrace her party’s nationalist and anti-immigration policies.

That shift toward acceptability for Le Pen’s National Front opens the way to a three-party system in France, making it tougher for Socialist President Francois Hollande and his Republican rival Nicolas Sarkozy to claw their way back.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen
Photographer: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

“Voters have begun to see the National Front as an alternative to the Republicans or the Socialists, as a third way,” said Yves-Marie Cann, head of political research at Elabe polling institute in Paris. “While there is an element of protest in choosing the National Front, some French people are looking for politicians who respond to their demands on the economy, security, immigration and identity -- anti-Islam in the main.”

The National Front is leading in six of France’s 13 regions after attracting about 6 million votes in Sunday’s nationwide elections on a platform of opposition to immigration and the euro while highlighting unemployment and security concerns. Though the power of French regions is mostly limited to infrastructure spending, attracting foreign investment and tourism promotion, regional government provides both a local base and a national platform for the victors.

With almost almost three in 10 voters supporting Le Pen’s party, the ballot assumed greater significance both since it was the first national electoral test for Hollande since the Paris attacks, and the last before the presidential elections in April 2017.

“Marine Le Pen had an acceptable presidential result, a decent showing in the local elections, then an excellent European election -- and now this,” Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher at Iris, a French political research institute, said at a conference in Paris Monday. “We are now definitely in a three-party system after years of being a two-party country.”

Mobilizing Voters

All the same, National Front candidates may not succeed in all the regions where they place first. The Republicans and the Socialists have larger pools of potential voters in the east and the southwest and the showing for Le Pen’s party may mobilize other voters to turn out on Dec. 13 for the second round, according to Cann of Elabe.

In the south and the north, where the National Front is leading by more than 10 percentage points, the Socialist Party said Sunday that it would withdraw its candidates in the second round to block Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion Marechal Le Pen. Polls suggest the National Front could win control of two regions for the first time: Nord-Pas de Calais in the north and Provence Cote-d’Azur in the south.

Sarkozy Stands Out

Held amid tight security, with policemen and soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris and bag searches at the entrance to polling stations, the election offered a snapshot of approval for Hollande’s attempts to marshal a united front against Islamic State. While his party didn’t suffer the defeat many anticipated, it also didn’t show any obvious signs of benefiting from his rise in popularity to the highest in almost three years.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who heads the Republicans, may have the most to rue after Sunday’s first round. Taken together, votes for the Socialists and potential allies such as the Greens amounted to 35 percent; for the Republicans and allies, it was about 33 percent.

“A low score for the ruling party, the Socialists, was to be expected,” said Joel Gombin, a researcher on the National Front at Picardie University in northern France. “But the real thing that stands out in these elections is the poor national score of the Republicans.”

Party ‘Normalization’

For Le Pen, the toughest tests may be yet to come. The National Front has to take at least two regions to claim victory and then demonstrate success at running them, according to Camus, who forecast that the Dec. 13 second-round results will be the major test for her 2017 presidential ambitions.

Whatever the outcome, Marine Le Pen has taken another step out from under her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shadow and toward acceptability, according to Sylvain Crepon, a professor of sociology at the University of Tours. Creating a network of local candidates deemed electable is “part of her normalization of the party,” said Crepon.

“For 20 years we have accepted the ideas of the National Front in our political discourse and rejected the people from the National Front,” Crepon told reporters Monday. “Maybe we have to consider whether that has to change.”

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