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France

Far-right party does about-face for local elections

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-09-14

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is revisiting a strategy that was once rejected by her predecessor and father: taking local municipal elections seriously. A new survey shows that approval ratings for her National Front party are on the rise.

France’s anti-immigration National Front (FN) appears to be riding on a wave of popularity six months ahead of municipal elections, lifting the party as it kicks off its annual summer conference on September 13 in the southeast city of Marseille.

A new survey revealed Thursday that the FN’s approval rating among French voters had risen by four percentage points in as many months, while the popularity of France’s two mainstream parties had headed in the opposite direction.

The study by French polling firm CSA found that the FN was on pace to win 16% of votes in the first round of the March 2014 municipal ballots. The ruling Socialist Party (PS) was forecast to win 40% support, or two points less than in its previous survey in March, the company noted.

During the same period, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) slipped three points, and is now on target to win 35% of ballots.

While the FN’s predicted election score of 16% seems low compared to that of its left-and right-wing rivals, that figure represents a national average. Pollsters predict the far-right party will claim much higher scores in specific election battlegrounds, and head to numerous run-offs for city governments next year.

In France’s 2011 local cantonal elections, the party led by Marine Le Pen reached the second round in 394 cantons, or one-fifth of all contested councils. But echoing election results in recent years, the FN eventually came up almost empty-handed that year. It won just two of the 2,000 cantonal seats up for grabs across the country.

French media are warning that this year could be different, for one important reason: an unprecedented push by the FN to make its presence felt on the local level.

Daughter unlike father

The FN announced on Thursday that it was creating a specialised cell at its headquarters in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre to train and support government bureaucrats, especially young people, in view of expected political gains across the country.

It also revealed that it was presenting 623 candidates in the upcoming municipal elections, including 33 candidates in France’s largest cities. By comparison, it fielded a total of 125 candidates nationwide in the last municipal election in 2008.

Sylvain Crépon, a leading expert on the far-right in France, said the move is really a throwback to the 1990s. At the time, former FN leader Bruno Mégret tried to give the party more visibility at the local level as a way to invest it with more credibility on the national one.

That did not sit well with FN founder and former president Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, who was weary of “local barons” challenging his authority. Also worried about “tainting the party’s ideology by compromises at the local level,” he squashed the initiative.

“His daughter has realised that it was a mistake. Jean-Marie wanted the power only for himself; she wants power for herself and her party,” said Crépon.

Mountain or molehill?

While the FN has made a big deal about its newfound urban enthusiasm, experts said there were virtually no fundamental changes within the party and little chance they would win more than 2 or 3 municipalities next year.

“The FN is on the offensive, but no more than usual. Their current emphasis on young people – on training and preparing them for future careers in politics – is normal of any party,” said Gaël Brustier, a sociologist and author of the book “Voyage au bout de la droite” (Journey to the far end of the right).

Brustier added that French media were making an FN mountain out of molehill, in typical fashion before elections.

According to Crépon, the FN has made significant efforts to soften its rough edges, but little has changed when it came to its political programme. Its anti-immigration platform, renamed “national priority” under Marine Le Pen, still tops its agenda, followed closely by security.

He said that municipal elections in France were most often decided by candidates’ personalities, with voters often casting ballots for recognisable figures. That meant the FN was unlikely to get far this time around.

“The FN has made a calculated decision. If it works, it will bear fruit in the medium and long term, five to ten years down the road,” said Crépon.

Date created : 2013-09-13

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