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Taking stock of the FN’s performance in the 2014 French municipal elections
By Jocelyn Evans, Gilles Ivaldi
26 March 2014 | General | 1438 words
The results of the first round of France’s municipal elections on Sunday were announced as a bombshell on the French press’s front pages – Peur sur les villes (fear over the cities) for Libération, Municipales, le FN triomphal, le PS sanctionné (The FN triumphant, the PS punished) for Le Monde, “La spectaculaire percée du FN” (The FN’s incredible surge) for Le Figaro. Similar headlines announcing the latest populist surge in Europe were to be found in the international press. In volume of electoral coverage, the expected swing to the UMP/UDI opposition in a mid-cycle local election was drowned out by the performance of Marine Le Pen’s party. With no sign of economic recovery, voters had sent a message of profound dissatisfaction to the socialist government, inflicting heavy losses on the PS in some of its historical strongholds. Last Sunday’s ballot was also marked by yet another record-breaking abstention rate (36.5 per cent).

Certainly, the FN’s performance was beyond even what the party itself had hoped, at least in public. By the close of first-round counting, it had already won 483 council seats, with one million votes – just under 6 per cent of the national vote – across the 587 communes in which it fielded lists. This compares with less than 1 per cent of the national vote across 122 lists in 2008. In larger towns of over 10,000 inhabitants, the FN led the first round in 17 of them – and, in the smaller but more notorious Northern town, Hénin-Beaumont, Steeve Briois won an absolute majority (50.3 per cent) in that first round. Perhaps most strikingly, voters turned to the FN particularly in the country’s two major zones of unemployment, concentrated in the north and south. Some of its best scores came in medium-sized and larger towns with high unemployment: Hénin-Beaumont (17.9% unemployment), Béziers (16.4%), Saint-Gilles (14.5%), Fréjus (13%), Forbach (14.3%) and Perpignan (16.1%).

Part of the apparent surprise came courtesy of flawed polls. Not for the first time, polling of voting intentions across some 50 key towns almost universally under-estimated the eventual support. Three of the FN’s big wins – Hénin-Beaumont, Fréjus and Perpignan – were out by more than 5 points. In Marseille, city-wide polls showed the FN at 16 per cent a few days before the election, out by 7 points. In many cases, commentators did not see the success coming because the evidence suggested it was not, at least not to the extent spread across Monday’s papers.

Yet, the undoubted success of the FN in these elections needs to be seen in the context of the municipal ballot. The party has indeed eclipsed its 2008 score. But 2008 represented a nadir for the party in sub-national elections following its 2007 debacle. After a performance closer to last Sunday’s in 1995, the party split in 1999 wrecked its local infrastructure. Whilst at the national level, it could still field a high-profile presidential candidate, and find sufficient candidates to contest legislative races, the sheer size of municipal races across over 36,000 communes is orders of magnitude beyond the FN’s capabilities. Note the party only contested 587 of the 9,848 communes over 1,000 inhabitants. These were chosen by the party strategically, as locations where evidence suggested the party could make an impact – principally, the Midi and North-East, along with a few towns in major urban peripheries, and a handful along the Eastern border – or where the party needed to be seen, for example Paris, where it then failed to progress to the second round in any of the 20 arrondissements. On average, in these chosen communes the FN had outperformed its overall national score by about 4 points in the 2012 legislatives.

This selection of areas of strength was a wise decision for a party looking to marshal its resources. In terms of voting strength, a more instructive comparison is not with the 2008 debacle, but rather with the more recent legislative results broken down by the municipal communes. Last Sunday, the FN lists totalled 1,047,900 votes across the 587 communes, compared with 955,000 in the 2012 legislatives, a 10 per cent increase. In terms of registered voters, the FN won 10.0 per cent in 2014 as opposed to 9.4 per cent in 2012, also confirming that the party probably suffered less than others from abstention.

But on average, the difference in score between the first round of the legislatives and the first round of the municipals was just -0.1. Granted, there is wide variation around this mean – well over 6 points as a standard deviation. Nevertheless, for every electoral success, there is an electoral failure. For every Perpignan (+9.8 per cent), there is a Cannes (-7.5 per cent).In Saint-Gilles, the commune we identified as the ‘easiest’ victory for the FN, National Assembly deputy Gilbert Collard’s list lost 5 points, and now needs to run against a ‘front Républicain’ announced by the Socialists less than 12 hours later. In Sorgues, the list of his co-deputy, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, dropped 3 percent, but more importantly was defeated by a UMP candidate with an absolute majority. Even Hénin-Beaumont represented only a 2 per cent increase in vote since Marine Le Pen’s marginal defeat in 2012. As the table below shows, territorially, whilst improving its performance in new ‘mission priorities’, it has actually lost support in its strongholds. Many of those losses were concentrated in the South where legislative candidates had done particularly well in 2012.

Region of France

Mean

Standard deviation

N

North-East

-0.03

6.92

123

South

-3.52

7.33

160

Other

1.70.

4.30

300

ALL

-0.10

6.25

583

Note: Metropolitan France


Finally, we should not overlook that, of the large number of communes decided in the first round – 203 in total – only Hénin-Beaumont went to the FN, together with Orange which returned, as expected, to the Far Right dissident Jacques Bompard for his fourth term. In a large number of these cases, a popular local incumbent from either the PS or the UMP held on without recourse to a run-off. The FN’s strategic choices gave it certain clear victories, but in only a fraction of these choices.

It is early days yet in analysing the patterns to these dynamics, but already two things are apparent. First, the FN is clearly gaining advantage from Marine Le Pen’s modernisation of the old French extreme right. Local support for the FN has grown where the party has promoted the rising stars of the ‘de-demonization’ strategy such as Robert Ménard in Béziers, Florian Philippot in Forbach, Gilbert Collard in Saint-Gilles or Valérie Laupies in Tarascon, as well as younger candidates such as David Rachline in Fréjus or Laurent Lopez in Brignoles. Following the example set by the successful FN mayors of the 1990s, all these candidates have emulated their ‘low profile’ strategy and kept their distance from the most controversial elements of the FN’s ideology. Second, and connected to this, the municipals have shown the party is now once again capable of projecting its national successes into the local level, a development first noted in the party’s showings in the 2011 cantonals, and now confirmed three years later.

How well it performs next week in the run-offs remains to be seen. Ahead of the first round, we estimated 1,637 councillors on the basis of the polls and previous legislative election performance. In the light of Sunday’s result, with the party likely to contest 321 councils, the party looks in line to win around 1,680 seats, once the unexpected run-offs and confirmed alliances with the mainstream right are taken into account. The party’s best chances of topping the second round are found across cities where its candidates led the first round.

The FN has learned from hard lessons in 2001 and 2008 how to choose its battles, and how to secure its supply lines. The message we would take from this is a stabilisation of vote reminiscent of its position 20 years ago – a nationally successful party with a territorially focused powerbase. At this stage, notwithstanding a small number of symbolic wins, it does not represent an earthquake shift of the party into regions it has never previously found support – almost three-quarters of French towns are yet to see an FN list, let alone a victory. The reasonable expectation for the party was a performance which consolidated its position as a third party at all levels of French elections, not just the presidential race. To that extent, Marine Le Pen’s claims to head a party now beyond being written off as a marginal player are correct. But very few would have written the FN off in this way before the election. A straw-man surge is being used as much by the party for its own campaign purposes as by its opponents as a warning siren.



A shorter version of this blog has been published at Policy Network

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Welcome to '500Signatures', for analysis and commentary on French politics and elections

This blog is produced by Jocelyn Evans (University of Leeds) and Gilles Ivaldi (University of Nice)

 
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jocelyn Evans [@JocelynAJEvans] is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds

Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science based at the University of Nice

 
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CATEGORY
 
DATA

- Forecasting the FN vote in Second-Order elections (updated 12 May 2014)

- Forecasting the FN vote in Second-Order elections (Jan. 2014)

- Polling scores by polling type (CATI v CAWI) (updated 20 April 2012)

- Estimating Marine Le Pen's vote in the 2012 presidentials: an experiment (November 2011)

- Data for the 2011 expert forecast survey (in CSV file)

 

 


 
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