Results of the first round of French regional elections have been like a tidal wave in French politics. For the first time in its history the National Front is the first party in French politics, with nearly 28%, followed by the centre-right alliance of “Les Republicains” and UDI and with the now ruling Socialist party coming third with less of 24% of votes. The fact that 6 out of 13 French “regions” have seen a National Front list arriving in the first place was stunning. This has created a deep feeling of shock inside the political elite. However with the benefits of hindsight such a result was not really surprising.
Not out of the blue…
It is to be understood first that the National Front, under the Marine le Pen’s leadership has been constantly rising for the last five years. It reached its nadir at the 2007 presidential election where Jean-Marie le Pen, the founder of the movement and father of Marine le Pen, got only 10% of votes, far less than the 16% he got in 2002 when he ousted Lionel Jospin, the Socialist leader of the second place in the Presidential election qualifying them himself for the second round and a confrontation with the incumbent President, Mr Jacques Chirac, who incidentally won by a very last margin.
Many were thinking then that heydays of the National Front were a thing of the past and that this party was finished. But, with replacement of the father by his daughter and with a significant injection of youth among people with responsibility a new dynamic could set in. At the 2012 Presidential election Marine le Pen gathered 18% of votes. The percentage increased to 25% for elections at the European parliament and reached nearly 28% now. The story so far has been one of success. Despite several internal crises, the worst being the ousting of Jean-Marie le Pen from the movement he created during summer 2015, the dynamic was obvious. The National Front has begun to slim out its discourse of the worst xenophobic statements and officially repudiated all hints of anti-Semitism. This turn, largely engineered by Marine le Pen and his political adviser Florian Philippot, a man who comes from the Left (he was a supporter of Jean-Pierre Chevènement in 2002) was the main reason of these crises. The National Front been increasingly developing its local infrastructure and has successfully reached new segments of the French population. It is a testimony of its success that more than one on third young voters (from 18 to 24 years old) voted for the “Front” on Sunday December 6th.
It’s the unemployment, stupid
This success is obviously linked to the deep and long economic crisis France has been suffering for years. Unemployment has reached unheard levels, with officially more than 3,6 millions of people and actually probably over 4,5 millions.
Note: INSEE and DARES data, aggregation of unemployment categories A, B and D
However, if we include all statistical categories for unemployment and “nearly” unemployment, the actual figures is over 6 millions, or more than 15% of the able bodied population. It is here quite interesting to note that despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some National Front leaders (specifically Marine le Pen own nephew, Marion Maréchal le Pen, who is leading the National Front on south eastern France) and its xenophobic discourse, the main point for French voters has been unemployment. Actually fear of migrants was quoted only in the fourth place among voters’ main preoccupations on Sunday December 6th. Obviously the deep shock induced by terror attack on November 13th has given a boost to the National Front. But it had too benefited to the Socialist President François Hollande whose popularity rating rose from and abyssal 16% low over 40%. Then, describing the last National Front success as just a result of the migrant crisis Europe has known combined to terror attacks is quite misleading.
One can judge of that by looking at the election first round map describing results by different political formation at a very low level of disaggregation.
Result of December 6th elections (first round)
Source: FranceTVInfo and CEMI-EHESS
One thing is immediately obvious. Most – but not all – of best National Front results have been concentrated east of a Le Havre – Marseille line. This line is well known by French geographers. It divided in the 1980’s and 1990’ industrialized and urban France (east of the line) from agricultural and rural one (west of the line). A large part of heavy manufacturing industries were concentrated east of this line, with nearly 70% of the French GDP being produced here. On the six regions east of this line, two were won by the National Front with more of 40% of votes (North and South-East from Nice to Marseille); two others with more than 30% of votes (North-East and Burgundy), and the last two were won by the centre-right (Paris and the region around Lyon). This is showing that the National Front vote has captured a large part of blue-collar workers.
But, this is not the end of the story. Actually French industry has migrated progressively west of the Le Havre – Marseille line when traditional regions of heavy industry have been struck by the economic crisis. A lot of small and medium manufacturing enterprises have developed west of this line, mostly in Normandy and central-west France and along a new line in Southwest going from the Mediterranean to Bordeaux ant the Atlantic coast. But these “new” industrial regions have been progressively caught by economic difficulties from the beginning of 2000’s. And, surprise, surprise, we can see on the map that here again the National Front has made important gains. It won in two regions, the west part of the Mediterranean coast (Languedoc-Roussillon) and in the central-west region (Centre – Pays de Loire). Quite important too, if he lost in Normandy to the centre-right, which here was sharing power here with the Socialist Party till the 1950’s, he lost by a very small margin, with the centre-right list making 28% and the National-Front one 27%. The map of National Front gains and the map of unemployment and the industrial crisis in France are highly correlated.
Why the National Front?
The massive progression of the National Front can then be linked to different factors. The first one is definitely unemployment and the global uncertainty, which is right now the situation of a lot of French people and most of all off poor people. As a matter of fact, this huge unemployment is combined with a huge tax level. People would understand this tax level but if it would come with low unemployment.
The second one is the deep feeling of abandonment felt by the same people from popular and blue-collar classes and coming from the continuous decay of public services out of large cities. The National Front vote is one of little and medium sized communities, which have been described by a geographer and sociologist as “forgotten” and “lost” territories. The idea that there is now around some “centres” (large cities) a large part of France that can be described as a “periphery” both in the economic but also the social sense is a very illuminating one, which could well explain the success of the National Front. The fact that a left-oriented President and his governments have closed a lot of public services in rural areas has off course increased this deep feeling of abandonment. A third factor is what could be called the specific French identity crisis. It comes from the extension of the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity from the economic dimension up to the cultural dimension. This could explain why the thematic of “identity” has become of one the most important issue in France. A lot of people have the feeling to have lost their cultural benchmarks not just because they are confronted to other cultures, and here Islam is frequently quoted as a problem, but mostly because they don’t know anymore to what they belong. This problem could be traced to the constant infringement of the European Union into the day-to-day life of French people. But the disappearance of the large industry, and the process of deindustrialization has been one of tremendous violence in France the last 20 years is also a factor with deep cultural and not just economic or social consequences. A lot of French people don’t know any more what it is to be French and if they are still French. And it has to be said that governments, be they right or left oriented, have done nothing to correct and improve this situation.
Last but not least the rise of illegal comportments, minor and major crimes, the feeling that police forces are helpless, have been a strong mover toward a vote for the National Front. The combination of all these different factors has been devastating in French politics. The fact that some of these factors have been playing for more than 20 years has given birth to a feeling that the political elite, be it of the right or of the left, has no interest in solving issues of the day-to-day life. This has led to a very serious estrangement between the French population and the political elite; this can be seen by the quite low voters turnout. But this estrangement is giving birth to resentment and this could well explain why in less than four years National Front results have jumped by nearly 10 points from 18% to 28%. The French population is now thinking in very old-Soviet terms as “they” (political elite) and “us” (the people).
The National Front dilemma
However, the first round is not the end of the story in the French political system. An old French political dictum says: at the first round you choose, at the second you eliminate. It is then still to be seen what will be the results of the second round. In the French political system the second round allows for coalitions and right now we are witnessing some very strange de facto coalition between the left and the right to try to block the National Front. The Socialist party is deliberately quitting the race in regions like North, East and Southeast, letting the right-wing alliance free to compete with the National Front. It is to be seen if such a strategy could be a winning one. A lot of objections to it have been raised from the left side. By the way, it is true that a strategy is playing into the National Front hands as this party has constantly denounced what he call a “collusion” of traditional parties to preserve their political positions.
However, this strategy is quite certainly a harbinger of things to come. Such a scenario is certainly to happen for the Presidential race to take place in 2017. Whatever the configuration, Mrs Marine le Pen, the National Front leader, is assured to be ahead of the first round (and probably with a good margin of advance) and to be present for the second one. But it does not imply she will be elected. To be so it is of the utmost importance that fear of the unknown generated by the National Front will be reduced and that its discourse will be even more slimmed down when it comes to xenophobic themes. It is however not as simple as it looks. Part of the past and present National Front successes has been built on the ambiguity between its “old” and its “new” discourse. It is to be clear that this party never was a “fascist” party. It had neither the programme nor the behaviour of a fascist movement. But it was at its beginning a far-right party, with a strong nostalgia for the former French colonial empire, and a strident xenophobic one. With the arrival of Marine le Pen and the younger generation a significant change took place and the National Front began to evolve toward a pattern more politically acceptable with position quite close from other populist European parties (like the Italian M5S, the British UKIP, and so on). But this change has not been complete. Still now one can hear, specifically in some Marion Marechal le Pen speeches, remnants of the past of the National Front. Quite interestingly it is the part of the party that is still committed to the “old” and xenophobic ideology that could accept much better the Euro and the European Union, which are regularly denounced by Marine le Pen and Florian Philippot. The current Nicolas Sarkozy turn toward xenophobic themes could be explained by his willingness to get some National Front voters without making concession on “serious” (that is the Euro and the EU) matters.
But the issue goes much farther than a conflict (still not solved) between the “old” and the “new”. To get elected in 2017 it implies that Marine Le Pen’s programme is to become more specific, more professional and more realistic. Still, it has to keep its radical flavour, as it is this flavour that attracts voters from popular classes and specifically young voters. The attempt of mixing radicalism, in the classical populist tradition, with more professional content is not an easy one. This programme is to be radical mostly in what concerns the European Union and the EU but in the same time it is not to unduly afraid voters. This is the main National Front dilemma for months to come.
Could these elections have a foreign policy impact?
A lot of people have been disturbed by the apparent closeness between National Front leaders and Russia’s ones. But, so far, the impact of the National Front growth on foreign policy is not directly visible. Quite certainly National Front members and sympathizers are showing a deep respect and admiration for Russia and its President. However this is not having a direct impact on French foreign policy.
Quite certainly a turn toward a more realistic foreign policy, one that is less confrontational with Russia, is now taking place in France. But this is much more a result of a deep and thorough review of the French foreign policy after terror attacks France have endured recently than one linked to the result of regional elections. This review is leading the French foreign policy back to realism, be it on the Middle-East (and Syria) or on relations with Russia. However, if Marine Le Pen stature is to continue to grow in the future the fact she committed herself to a much more friendly foreign policy with Russia could not be ignored.
 Guilluy C., La France périphérique. Comment on sacrifie les classes populaires, Paris, Flammarion, 2014