Her sights are set on the Elysee.

Photographer: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Le Pen Wins on Economy, Not Xenophobia

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It may look like the extreme right's victory in the first round of the French regional elections last weekend is an echo of this year's terrorist attacks on Paris. It's not.

The electoral triumph of Marine Le Pen's National Front is about the economy more than it is about fear or xenophobia.

There's no denying that Le Pen and her party have done better than ever in an election that actually gives them power over anything in France (last year's European Parliament election, which the National Front won, doesn't count). After a reform that cut the number of administrative regions in mainland France to 12 from 22 (13 counting Corsica), the ruling Socialist Party ended up running all but one of these. Now, Le Pen's party has a plurality in six regions and may win in four of them after the second round of voting next Sunday.

That's a shock to France's establishment parties -- the Socialists and the Republicans led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. The center-right newspaper, Le Figaro, on Monday came out with the banner headline "Le choc." There's talk about setting up a "Republican front" to combat Le Pen, with the Socialists and the Republicans joining forces -- something Sarkozy and some Socialist politicians would hate to do, but which may become necessary in further elections if the National Front keeps winning.

Yet the establishment politicians need to attack France's turgid economy, not Le Pen. The voting results in Paris itself suggest that people who have had their neighbors shot by terrorists do not believe that keeping out immigrants or cracking down on Muslims -- the National Front's stock-in-trade -- will fix the terror problem. Wallerand de Saint Just, the far right party's treasurer, did not win or even come in second in any of the French capital's 20 districts. Saint Just got just 59,429 votes in all of Paris, and he was beaten by each of the establishment candidates, who are locked in a close contest, by a factor of more than three.

President Francois Hollande has stolen Le Pen's anti-terrorist thunder by declaring war on Islamic State, ordering aggressive police raids against suspected terrorists in France itself, pledging more resources to intelligence services and police. His popularity jumped to 27 percent from 20 percent, and his approval ratings are the highest since 2012. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who said after the attacks that Europe "cannot take any more refugees," has also seen his popularity rise, to 32 percent from 26 percent. If voters wanted toughness, Holland and Valls gave it to them. Le Pen probably wouldn't have said or done anything much different, had she been in power.

A different establishment failing led to her party's success. The correlation between its performance in Sunday's voting and the unemployment level in French regions is 0.8 -- a level that strongly suggests causality.

It's the Economy, Hollande
Unemployment levels and National Front election results in mainland France
 
Sources: INSEE, Le Figaro

Le Pen is a deft politician. She must have gained quite a few votes by enacting a family drama -- pushing her father, the National Front's founder, out of the party for denying the significance of the Holocaust. The move may well have been calculated for effect: late on Sunday, a glowing Jean-Marie Le Pen recorded a congratulatory message to all the candidates and activists who secured high vote counts for "the first party in France." Yet Marine Le Pen's willingness to stand up to her father must have impressed some French people who had been ashamed to vote for a political force in which an unrepentant anti-Semite served as honorary chairman.

The National Front leader can also learn from her mistakes: Unlike after the Charlie Hebdo attack last January, she didn't denounce those who expressed solidarity with the victims as "clowns," and her "told you so" utterances were relatively humble.

None of that, however, will take her as far as she wants to go -- to the French presidency in 2017. So far, the French have backed her where the stakes are lower. In the latest municipal election last year, the National Front won the mayoralties of 11 towns out of a total of 36,000, though that was presented as a historic win at the time, too. The current regional elections won't have much effect on voters (which explains the low turnout): The regions only handle matters such as public transport, high schools and art and culture subsidies. The National Front won't be able to build up much of a governance record by the presidential election in April and May 2017. The votes it will get then will most likely be protest ones, and these only make sense while the establishment parties continue to treat the economy as if it'll miraculously fix itself with minimal action on their part.

"For the citizen who vents his anger, a vote for the National Front is a 'useful' vote," Alexis Brezet wrote in a Le Figaro editorial. "No other choice will make as much noise as this one, no other ballot will say more clearly to those who govern us or to those who'd like to succeed them: Protect us or we will ask others to do it."

To beat the National Front, the establishment parties need courage and clarity, two qualities they have both lacked. It's a difficult task, because Le Pen herself doesn't have to make much of an effort -- she just needs to keep setting herself up as an alternative. Unless there are specific economic improvements -- or a clear plan from the center-right opposition -- the French just might give Le Pen a chance at something bigger than the management of a few high school systems.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net