Nicolas Sarkozy (L), former French president and current head of the Les Republicains political party, casts his ballot in the second-round regional elections in Paris, France, December 13, 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS/PHILIPPE WOJAZER)
PARIS – Many in France expressed relief following the defeat of the far-right National Front in the regional election runoffs.
French voters have a reputation of blocking the FN at the last moment. The best example of this is when the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, qualified for the runoff in the 2002 presidential elections. Socialist Lionel Jospin, who came in third, called upon left-wing voters to support the conservative Jacques Chirac against Le Pen. A somewhat similar phenomenon was seen on Sunday.
Almost 60 percent of the electorate went to the polls, including four million citizens who did not vote in the first round last week. Clearly, many voters responded to the plea of the two main parties to block the far Right.
Last week, FN leader Marine Le Pen declared “a magnificent victory,” not just for her party, but for her personally as well, when they came in first place in six of the 13 regions. Just one week later, Le Pen accused the French political system of leading a campaign of intimidation and fear.
The exceptional success of the FN in the first round shocked the French political system. But in truth, analysts had expected the far Right to win, at least partially, and this was also reflected in preliminary polls. The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris only added to prevailing feelings of insecurity and heightened tensions on the immigration issue. The ongoing economic crisis also pushed many voters to seek solutions outside the two main parties.
Nevertheless, the French electorate united in an anti-FN vote. Already before the first round, Prime Minister Manuel Valls proposed to his Socialist Party’s regional candidates to join forces with Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing The Republicans party in regions where first round votes would favor the National Front. For Valls, preventing the FN from winning any of the regions was of paramount importance, and he didn’t hesitate in explaining this. Yet several senior members of the Socialist Party objected to Valls’s proposal, and it was eventually rejected. Sarkozy also opposed any such option.
But the devastating results in the first round for the ruling Socialist Party forced it to withdraw losing candidates in the regions where they stood no chance of winning, to avoid drawing votes away from those with a chance of defeating the National Front.
True to his declarations before the elections, Sarkozy refused to create any political alliances with the Socialists – a strategy that proved itself politically wise. He went as far as saying that voting for the FN is not “immoral” and that it’s not a vote against the French Republic, a declaration harshly criticized by his opponents.
What does this mean for the National Front? Le Pen has repeatedly declared that she is heading toward the 2017 presidential elections with the intentions of qualifying for the second round. Her party has been gaining power from one election to the next to the point that pundits in France have cautiously started referring to a new political system of three blocs, instead of the traditional two-bloc system. This was a notion Le Pen herself referred to, in her end-of-the-second-round speech on Sunday night. But Sunday’s failure might partly recalibrate the political system and expose Le Pen to harsh criticism from within her own party.
Left- and moderate-right-wing leaders thanked the French people on Sunday night for blocking the National Front, which lost in all 13 regions. Still, the fact that so many Frenchmen did vote for it must serve as a warning sign for both President François Hollande and Sarkozy.
And a little note for reflection: French politics and society reject introducing any religious elements in public life. This notion of secularism is the essence of the French Republican identity. But the issue of French identity has also become a major element in the discourse of the FN against immigrants. In the current European atmosphere of growing Islamophobic sentiments, we have yet to see Muslim candidates enter the French political arena.