Gard's left wing regroups after far-right shock
The Gard in southern France was the only place far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen got more votes than any other candidate in Sunday’s first presidential election round. Local left-wing supporters are determined to halt Le Pen’s advances.
Socialists and their left-wing allies in the Gard region of southern France were in the fighting spirit on Friday in the face of a surging far-right National Front (FN).
Nimes, the principal city in the region, is best known for its Roman-era amphitheatre and the controversial and popular corrida bull fights that kick off each May.
But the city is now also on the map for being at the heart of the only French administrative department where the FN’s candidate, Marine Le Pen, came out on top in the first round of the presidential election on April 22.
Nationally, the FN scored a record-breaking 17.9 percent. In the Gard, 25.5 percent of voters cast their ballot for Le Pen’s anti-immigration and anti-Europe party, up ten points from the previous election in 2007.
And as incumbent centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist opponent François Hollande fight for the second round on May 6, both candidates desperately need to secure a share of the FN vote.
‘A forest fire just waiting to get out of control’
Polls show Sarkozy trailing his Socialist rival by up to ten points, but the incumbent president is hoping support from a majority of FN voters will considerably narrow that gap, or indeed turn the tables in his favour.
While Sarkozy has wholeheartedly embraced many of the far right's campaign themes, the Socialists, including those in the Gard, have been at pains to steer clear of the less palatable issues, such as immigration and national identity.
“I’m not going to go hunting votes on Marine Le Pen’s territory,” Damien Alery, Socialist Party (PS) leader of the Gard regional council, told FRANCE 24. “It isn’t my style and it’s not what is going to gain me respect from voters.”
Alery said that Le Pen “frightened” him and that delving into FN ideology to win voters was like “lighting a fire in the forest and letting it get out of control.”
“We must recognise that the high FN result was not a show of loyalty to Le Pen,” he said. “It was a vote of anger, vengeance and ill will towards Sarkozy and his government’s record [since coming to office in 2007].”
Focus on the economy
Instead, representatives of a broad coalition of left-wing parties, including the Greens and the far-left Front de Gauche, told a press conference in Nimes on Friday that they would focus on the economic regeneration of a region suffering chronic unemployment.
Each agreed that by sticking to issues such as the economy, employment and spending power, the left would win enough voter capital from the FN without having to bow down to the hard core of supporters who hold the party’s extreme views.
“Not all of the people who voted for Le Pen in the first round are fascists,” said Patrick Malavieille, regional president of the Front de Gauche, whose first-round candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called on his supporters to rally behind Hollande. “Many are simply people who are lost, who have no faith and have no hope.”
Christophe Cavard, regional representative for the Green party, added that those FN voters who genuinely held racist and anti-immigration views could simply be ignored.
“We can bring round those voters who supported Le Pen because of the economic situation,” he told FRANCE 24. “The racists and the europhobes are beyond our reach. We should not poison ourselves with the FN’s gangrene by trying to win them over.”
Looking ahead to June’s parliamentary vote
Local Socialists and their allies are all confident that, barring major hiccups in the last days of the campaign, their candidate will oust President Sarkozy come May 6.
In fact many are more concerned about the legislative elections that will take place the following month.
For Nelly Fontanau, deputy to the Socialist candidate for the Gard parliamentary seat, those elections will be a chance to erase memories of the "sadness" caused by the far-right's surprise result on April 22.
“We must capitalise on the shock of the FN win,” she told FRANCE 24. “We need to tell the mainly young and poor voters who supported Le Pen that we have heard them and that we are on their side, but that we cannot leave Europe and that we cannot hate foreigners."
But for that to happen, Fontanau and her fellow party members know full well they need Hollande to show them the path to victory first.