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France’s ‘Republican Front’ in tatters as FN surges

Photo: AFP

The decades-old unwritten agreement between France’s right- and left-wing parties to keep the far-right National Front out of power appears to have come to an end.


National Front (FN) candidates claimed historic gains in municipal elections across France on Sunday, and even before all the votes were tallied, there were renewed calls to forge a so-called “Republican Front” to keep the FN out of as many city councils as possible.

“Wherever the FN has a possibility to win the second round of the elections, all of the democratic and republican forces have the duty to stop them,” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, a Socialist, warned in a televised speech on Sunday evening.

However, while alarm over the advance of the FN was raised, support for the Republican Front among the mainstream right seems to be as weak as ever, and embargoing the FN has become a divisive issue among members of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

A crazy idea

National Front Vice President Louis Aliot happily announced on Sunday that voters “no longer listened” to calls to form a Republican Front, but the pronouncement could just be wishful thinking. With 34.20 percent support, Aliot won the most votes on Sunday in the southern city of Perpignan, but stands to lose the second round if the mainstream candidates agree to unite forces.

The incumbent UMP mayor Jean-Marc Pujol, who finished in second place with 30.57 percent, has called on the Socialist candidate to respect the Republican Front and pull out of the three-way runoff. If left-leaning voters in Perpignan decide to shift their support behind Pujol, it is likely he will defeat the FN’s Aliot in the end.

But while the main opposition UMP party stands to win Perpignan and a handful of other cities thanks to a new Republican Front, other right-wing leaders are unwilling to endorse the old anti-FN arrangement.

UMP chief Jean-François Copé said on Monday that there will be no calls from party leaders to vote for a Socialist mayoral hopeful in order to keep an FN candidate from office. He also assured his party would seek no deals with the far-right, anti-immigration party.

The UMP’s “neither FN, nor Socialist” position was first implemented during legislative elections in June 2012. It appears to be the party’s new election mantra.

Furthermore, the most conservative members within the UMP have said the Republican Front needs to be buried following Sunday’s results.

Lawmaker Henri Guaino called it a “crazy idea” on Monday, adding that it was wrong “not to listen” to voters who cast a ballot for the National Front. Geoffrey Didier, a UMP regional councilman from the Paris region, was more categorical: “There is no Republican Front, it was smashed to bits a long time ago.”

However, it appears that not everyone within the UMP is ready to give up joining forces with left-wing rivals in extraordinary circumstances. François Baroin, a former budget minister, said on Monday he continued to believe in creating a “watertight barrier” against the FN.

Crossing the red line

According to Olivier Rouquan, a French political analyst, the Republican Front was significantly weakened during former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007-2012 mandate.

“The Sarkozy years were clearly marked by a change in political discourse. Sarkozy warmed up to the FN’s ideas, he sometimes adopted them outright,” noted Rouquan. “Since UMP leaders adopted positions similar to those of the FN, it follows that the party’s sympathisers have been tempted to cross that red line.”

At the same time, Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father as the FN’s president in 2011, has gone to great lengths to soften the party’s image among voters. While continuing to rage against alleged rampant immigration, she has shunned the anti-Semitic speech her father was infamous for.

So while the UMP has moved farther to the right, the FN itself has knocked down some of the barriers that once separated it from the mainstream right. Increasingly, they appear to be competing for the same constituents.

For Rouquon, the UMP’s hesitation between safeguarding and forgetting the Republican Front is no small electoral dilemma, but cuts to the fundamental question about the party’s future.

“The election results and forecasts appear to indicate that the FN will become increasingly present at different levels of government, and the UMP will have to deal with that reality,” Rouquan said. “The major challenge of the UMP in the coming years will be deciding if it will finally forge ties with the National Front.”

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