|Local elections do not normally raise much interest within a country, let alone internationally. Low turnout, parochial issues and invisible national leaders all contribute to limiting the saliency of subnational ballots, compared with legislative or presidential races. Little could be further from the truth for Sunday’s regional elections in France, which have been the subject of intense media scrutiny not just in France but also across the world. Indeed, local elections in France have recently had a higher profile than usual in the world press, in particular the 2014 municipal elections, and to a much lesser extent the new departmental elections earlier this year. One reason explains the rise of media interest in these elections – the increasing success of the Front national (FN) and Marine Le Pen.|
Traditionally, local elections have not been ones at which the FN has thrived. Despite the beginnings of local networks in the 1990s, the party schism in the late 1990s and moribund campaigning by the party in the early 2000s destroyed any chance the party had of securing significant representation on local or regional administrations. A fresh leadership under Marine Le Pen, supported by a rejuvenated politbureau of ambitious politicians, focused support on targeted local strongholds, including the North-East, Alsace-Lorraine and the South coast, and revived the electoral fortunes of the party, through an apparent de-demonisation process moderating the party’s stance on immigration, Islam and security and thereby widening its appeal to a growing pool of voters.
‘Apparent’, because Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric in the wake of the Paris attacks on 13 November has revealed just how much lip-service the more tempered stance on these issues has been. Unlike the relative solidarity she showed with other party leaders in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January this year, Le Pen has returned to an old-style frontiste rhetoric, attacking both politicians and the immigrant and Muslim communities within days of the attacks. President Hollande and his government have been accused of pursuing a ‘lax security policy’ and, having already employed a discourse of the public health threat of immigrants more characteristic of the party 30 years ago, her closing campaign rally speech at Nîmes pushed the idea of an imminent threat of Islamization and even the replacement of the Constitution by sharia law. Her niece and FN National Assembly deputy, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, has gone as far as claiming that “France is no Islamic soil” and that “Muslims can only be French if they share France’s customs and lifestyle which have been shaped by sixteen centuries of Christianity”. “In our home”, she said, “people don’t walk around wearing jellabas, they don’t wear full veils and they don’t impose mosques the size of cathedrals!”
In the lead-up to Sunday’s first round, this hardline stance on security and immigration has played well in the polls, suggesting that the FN could be the main beneficiary of the current anti-Muslim backlash in France. The latest national poll shows that the FN could top Sunday’s first round with 30% of the vote, neck-and-neck with the Republicans (LR) at 29%. The ruling PS is expected to come third with 22%, with no sign of a coattail effect from the recent surge in presidential popularity. As unemployment continues to rise sharply, the anticipated PS score reflects continuing voter discontent with the economic record of the executive, as well as the impact of party fragmentation on the left. Hollande’s new security agenda, particularly his most controversial proposal of removing citizenship, has been fanning the political flames, infuriating both the Greens and Mélenchon’s radical left, while simultaneously creating political unease within the ranks of the PS. According to the same poll, however, the left overall could win 35.5%, just below the 36.5% received by the PS and the other parties of the left in the departmental elections of March 2015. A more substantial swing is visible on the right –the LR/UDI coalition is down from 36.6% last March to 31.5% in current polls, which suggests that the post-attack boost for Marine Le Pen could be coming mostly from former LR voters who are radicalising over Islam and immigration.
In six of the 12 metropolitan regions, excluding Corsica and the overseas dependencies and territories (DOM-TOM), the FN is leading first-round voting intentions. In two of these, the FN looks well placed to win in the second round – Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, where Marine Le Pen is heading the list; and Provence – Alpes – Côte d’Azur (PACA), where Marion Maréchal Le Pen leads the FN. In both cases, the FN list is polling at 40% of first-round voting intentions. Similarly, in Alsace Champagne-Ardenne Lorraine, mayor of Belfort and the party’s second-in-command and chief strategist, Florian Phillipot, is just ahead of the mainstream Right in second-round vote intentions. Even in Aquitaine Limousin Poitou-Charentes and Pays de la Loire, former wastelands for FN votes, the party is polling 25% in the first round – potentially enough to see it through to the run-off. Moreover, polling of likelihood of vote sees FN voters as the most likely to turn out on Sunday – a reversal, as in 2014, of the usual lower turnout among these voters which has hampered the party in the past.
The old spectre of moderate politicians courting FN support to shore up their majorities now looks to be fading fast as the upper limit of regional election concerns. Under an electoral system which awards a 25% bonus of seats to the largest party in a region, next week’s second round could see the FN take a large majority in two or more newly expanded regional administrations with responsibility for economic planning, transport infrastructure, education and professional training. This time the focus will therefore be on mainstream party strategy and how to prevent the FN from winning regional executives. LR President Nicolas Sarkozy has clearly reiterated the ‘neither nor’ line of conduct of his party, which originated in the 2011 cantonals, announcing that the Republicans will stand in all second-round runoffs next Sunday. The PS leader, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, has taken a more pragmatic wait-and-see stance, hoping for a late surge of support for his candidates in the field and cooperation with other parties of the Left between the two rounds. The truth is both parties are in a strategic gridlock as any attempt at reviving the now defunct Front Républicain would only give more ammunition to the FN for its traditional attacks against the so-called ‘UMPS’ – or, as Florian Philippot has now named it, the ‘herpes’ (RPS) coalition. For the PS to step down in Nord or PACA to support the right against the FN would also mean excluding themselves from regional assemblies for the next six years, which would only create more political unrest among already disgruntled party grassroots.
What are the likely outcomes across the other regions? The mainstream Right appears poised to take a number of regions from the Socialists. The Ile-de-France looks likely to swing to the Right, headed by Valérie Pécresse. There are two small vestiges of hope for the Left retaining the Parisian basin – first, the ideological gulf from centrists to Dupont-Aignan’s souverainistes that Pécresse must bridge in order to ensure a coherent majority; and second, an eleventh-hour coat-tail effect the polls may have missed on François Hollande’s resurgence in polls.
Similar hopes must be going through many Socialist minds across France, with only four regions currently showing them ahead in the polls at the second round – Aquitaine Limousin Poitou-Charentes (+4 lead), Bourgogne Franche-Comté (+2), Bretagne (+12), and Languedoc-Roussillon Midi-Pyrénées. The remaining five regions look likely to fall to the Right, headed in two cases – Centre – Val de Loire and Normandie – by the centrist UDI.
Contrast this with the current situation where, in the 22 pre-reform regions, the mainstream Right holds the presidency of only one regional government – Alsace – with all other regions held by the Left. The likely outcome of regions v2.0 is likely to be a more variegated pink-blue palette, with dark blue stains along the edges, than the pure pink of v1.0 in 2010. To that extent, this ‘local’ election is likely to play a more traditional role in providing a benchmark of public opinion towards the incumbents in the lead-up to the 2017 Presidential race. How well the Right performs in ousting Socialist administrations will give a sense of the scale of their challenge to the Left in 18 months’ time. A Right-wing landslide is already off the cards, and limited LR success in the regionals will hamper Sarkozy’s bid in next year’s presidential primary, showing the limits of his hardline strategy against the FN. The current economic, migration and terrorism crisis provides Marine Le Pen with a very propitious context, putting the FN front and centre in French politics and increasing the salience of its traditional cultural agenda. How well the Radical Right performs on Sunday will give a sense of the challenge to both Left and Right that Marine Le Pen will present in 2017.