PARIS – Grey skies and cold weather welcomed many potential voters in France today for the first round of regional elections.
Nevertheless, at noon time, surveys showed a 16.27 percent voting rate, a bit more than the 2010 participation figure. Tight security at the polls did not appear to deter many French voters. On the contrary, many people were out and about since the majority of the shops are open on Sunday in December, for Christmas shoppers.
Regional elections are usually considered less important in France than presidential or municipal polls, but pundits agreed this election had special significance coming so soon after the November 13 Paris attacks.
These are also the last elections to be held before the 2017 presidential elections, making them a potentially sensitive political barometer.
“The attacks reinforced trends observed in France for several years already of concerns related to personal security, mistrust vis-àvis immigrants and mixed feeling regarding Islam,” Vincent Geisser, a researcher at the French national research institute CNRS, said.
Geisser thought that issues such as Islamophobia, anti-immigration and anti-European policies, once a taboo, have entered public discourse in the past 30 years, to the point that politicians now view them as legitimate campaign themes.
“The national Front party could gain up to 30 % in some parts of the south and the north. The extreme right has been gaining strength from one election to the other, for quite a few years now,” Geisser said.
The attacks in January against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, and those in November “played into the hands of the extreme right, because people are afraid of terror and are afraid of Islam.
People admit that. Nevertheless, this tendency towards the extreme right was not born of these attacks,” he said.
“Islamophobia is not the main reason which pushes voters to choose the National Front party; it’s the ensemble of policies advocated by Marine Le Pen,’’ Geisser said.
A survey by Liegey Muller Pons for the Cevipof Science Po political research institute (published on December 4) indicated that Le Pen’s National Front party could win several regions, mostly in the north and northeast of France.
Geisser told The Jerusalem Post it would be a major achievement for the National Front (FT) were the party to succeed in taking over three regions.
“The National Front has managed to pass several obstacles and to register quite a few electoral achievements already, also on the European level. The current elections offer them an opportunity to transform the party from a political-ideological power to an executive political powerhouse,” he said.
Geisser saw France as headed more to decentralization, after going through structural reform which left 13 regions instead of a former 22. The change makes each region is more powerful than before.
“Regions and municipalities gain more responsibilities. The party in charge of a region can decide on the school menu, whether halal is served or not, it can decide which cultural institutes will receive funding, etc. This has a lot of influence on our lives,’’ Geisser said.
Jean, a French Jew living in Marseilles, said he has considered voting for the National Front, telling the Post in a telephone interview: “I have always voted to one of the big parties, but after recent events, I am not so sure. It seems that the traditional leadership has failed us in the test of personal security.’’ Geisser said that contrary to the US, French analysts are reluctant to talk about a “community vote.’’ French Jews have joined forces against Le Pen and parties considered as anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli par excellence. They tend to vote for the two main parties. But studies show that five to 10 percent of French Jews have voted in the past for extreme right parties. The same is true for the Muslim community.
“French Muslims expressed themselves after the attacks, and distanced themselves from the perpetrators. Several mosques dedicated their Friday sermons to preach against these acts, and many Imams signed on such petitions.
But all these actions and all the social media campaigns against extreme Islam have not been translated yet into a political power,’’ Geisser said.
Joel Gombin, a specialist on the French extreme right and member of the Observatoire des Radicalités Politiques Jean Jaures research institute said “the Muslim population in France, especially the poor people in the suburbs – the second and third generations of immigrants – has no real political representation.”
“The political discourse after the November attack alienated them.
The voting rate in these neighborhoods is usually not higher than 20%, and probably won’t be any higher this time either,’’ Gombin said.
Gombin said that “in some regions we have seen that 40% of the population supports the extreme right. It means that the extreme right has managed to cross sociopolitical classes.
“In these regions, it’s ‘Mr. Everybody’ who is voting for the FN. True, the profile of the extreme right voter is usually that of low-middle class, not so much religious young person. But this profile is changing. The extreme right is gaining more ground,’’ Gombin said.