Why Marine Le Pen’s surge is no surprise

Marine Le Pen's FN party is close to regional power.

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It is rare that identical front pages appear in Le Figaro, the voice of conservative France, and L’Humanité, the  French Communist Party daily. Last Monday, after Marine Le Pen led the Front National (FN) to first place in regional council voting, both newspapers splashed: “Le choc”.

The words showed how far the establishments of both right and left are out of touch with the country’s mood. The FN’s 28 per cent share of the vote in the first round of elections in the 13 regions was anything but a shock. For three decades, politicians and the media have voiced alarm when voters have turned to the FN, which they deem beyond the pale of democracy. Yet, except for a dip under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, the party kept rising, first under Jean-Marie Le Pen, its anti-Semitic founder, and then his daughter Marine, who made the family firm more respectable after inheriting it in 2011.

Now, the FN is close to regional power, after Marine won 40.6 per cent of the votes in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and her 26-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, won the same share in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

The provincial assemblies hold modest authority but the first FN conquest of a regional presidency would sharpen Marine Le Pen’s prospect of victory in the 2017 national presidential election. Until now the FN has controlled only a handful of towns and fielded three MPs. So far, no opinion polls have placed the 47-year-old leader in the Elysée Palace, but on current showing she will reach the run-off and is now the candidate to beat.

The main parties, François Hollande’s Socialists and Sarkozy’s Republicans, have once again reacted by deploring the error of voters but have taken different tacks. The Socialists came third but did not receive the thrashing that they had feared, in part because of the president’s firm response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Hollande opted for the old tactic of demonising the FN. For the 13 December run-off, he withdrew all candidates in the north and Provence to leave a clear field for the Republicans to block the far right.

Also told to stand down were the Socialists in the eastern region around Alsace, where Florian Philippot, the FN’s deputy chief, was also in reach of victory. But Jean-Pierre Masseret, the local left leader, rebelled and vowed to stay in the race, making a victory for the FN more likely.

The Republicans’ second place was a setback for Sarkozy, who wants to take back the presidency in 2017. He rejected the Socialist call for coalition against the FN, appealed to voters to resist the simplicities of the Le Pen doctrine, while adding that he understood their “deep exasperation”. That line has long been a mainstream ritual after a FN advance, yet the voters keep turning to the long-toxic party in greater numbers. The explanation is clear. Since the 1980s, successive governments have failed to resolve “la crise”: France’s chronic high unemployment, sluggish economy and sense of decline in the face of a hostile world. Hollande has belatedly started trying to help businesses while he continues to raise public spending and talk the old-fashioned Socialist line. Unemployment is at a 17-year high and French taxes are the second highest in the world, according to the OECD.

Add to that the alarm over this year’s refugee crisis and terrorist attacks and the Le Pens hardly needed to make their electoral pitch, which holds that the elites have betrayed the people, sold out to Europe and opened the frontiers to foreigners who are robbing France of its wealth and its soul. 

With its promises of an even more protective welfare state, the FN has captured half the working-class vote and made inroads far beyond. The party was aided by Marine’s removal of her father from the honorary chairmanship this year. A majority of the under-25 vote goes to the party. “The Front is recruiting a lot among skilled tradesmen and middle managers, in the heart of a lower-middle or upper-working class that feels that its social mobility has been blocked,” wrote Hervé le Bras, the author of a book on the FN, in Le Parisien this week.

As the parties prepare for the regional run-off, there are signs that the long denial of the FN’s power is fading. Le Monde asked, “How did we get here?” and blamed the established parties. Yet the remedy prescribed by Le Monde and the left-leaning thinking classes still avoids France’s need for renewal in a political universe locked into the old hierarchy and ideas. No one is talking up the big reforms needed to allow the economy to prosper in the modern world. That enables the Le Pen brand to carry on selling dreams of a return to
the golden age of France’s postwar boom. l

This article appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires