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Far-right gains spell end to France's two-party system

Even without winning a single department in France's local elections, the strength of support for Maine Le Pen (right) has made her National Front a powerful third force in French politics.
Even without winning a single department in France's local elections, the strength of support for Maine Le Pen (right) has made her National Front a powerful third force in French politics. AFP

France’s far right National Front party failed to take control of a single regional council in Sunday’s local elections – but this doesn’t mean they are altogether out of the picture.

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The only thing that held Marine Le Pen’s anti-Europe and anti-immigration party back was France’s first-past-the-post electoral system and the willingness of a dwindling number of voters to support any party in order to block the National Front’s progress.

Under the kind of proportional-representation system that gave the party a quarter of France’s 97 European parliamentary seats (and the dominant voice in Brussels) last year, the National Front (FN) would now be in a strong position.

Voters turned out in droves to support Le Pen’s party in the local elections, which took place over two successive Sundays (March 22 and 29) to elect councils in 97 of France’s 101 “departments” (administrative regions).

The ballot saw former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing coalition achieve a landslide victory, taking 66 councils, while the ruling Socialists suffered huge losses, retaining just 34.

And even if the FN failed to take control of a single council, a quarter of voters cast their ballot for the far-right party in the first round.

Ménage à trois

What this means is that while the FN is still reviled by many French voters, it can no longer be described simply as an annoying fringe party that makes occasional headlines.

For better or for worse, France’s historical two-party left vs. right political system is history.

“This is a sign of a lasting upheaval in our political landscape and we will all need to draw lessons from it," Prime Minister Manuel Valls recognised on Sunday.

This view was backed by leading French political analyst Thomas Guénolé, who told FRANCE 24 as the results came in on Sunday it was ”quite clear that there are now three forces in French politics”.

French voters are now faced with three choices, he said: “A left-wing progressive bloc with a failing economic programme; a conservative pro-globalisation right-wing bloc with divisive social policies; and a homogenous, protectionist and reactionary National Front.”

Difficult new relationships

Now, more than ever, the leading parties will have little choice but to join forces with their rivals.

Sarkozy’s UMP party showed the way in this month’s departmental vote, openly teaming up with the centrist UDI, a partnership Sarkozy said proved that “without unity, nothing will be possible in the future”.

“If it had been as unified as it was in these local elections, Sarkozy’s centre-right block would have beaten the FN in last year’s European elections,” Guénolé said.

“The left, meanwhile, has been divided in both elections," he added. “To win they’d need to bring everyone on board, from [far-left Front de Gauche leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon to [tough-talking Prime Minister] Manuel Valls.”

But for Hollande and Valls, who expressed interest in courting their left-wing rivals but singularly failed to follow through, their closest possible allies are also among their loudest critics.

And in the longer term, even bigger enmities may have to be overcome: a sustained three-party environment will force the Socialists into unprecedented cooperation with their UMP arch enemies if there is any hope of responding to the resurgent FN.

Marine Le Pen on Sunday portrayed this division, pitting FN against the big mainstream parties, as “an undeniable new reality”.

“The FN is in opposition to the UMPS,” she said on Sunday night, using an invented acronym linking the Socialist Party (PS) and the UMP. “The national and regional leaders of the UMPS have just one common goal – to fight the National Front.”

Attacking populism

“The problem is that in practical and political terms, this ‘republican’ alliance between the left and the right doesn’t work, mostly because the effect of their anti-FN message is starting to wear thin,” Guénolé said. “If it carries on, it might even prove counter-productive.”

“Conscience voting”, where the electorate is persuaded to vote against a party based on its political philosophy rather than the detail of its policies, is no longer an effective countermeasure to the rise of the FN, he said.

“Attacking the FN on its populist and protectionist economic programme would be much more efficient (for the UMP) because far right policies are new and as yet untested,” Guénolé said.

Indeed, the FN has plenty to pick apart, particularly in its economic vision (among many other policies, the party would reinstate retirement at 60, effectively stop immigration, close borders and take the economic gamble of quitting the EU, at least in its present form).

It’s the economy...

Sarkozy tried and ultimately failed to woo FN voters (he lost the 2012 election to Socialist Hollande, having served just one term as president) by making the far-right’s “national identity” concerns at the centre of his government’s policies.

The Socialists, meanwhile, have the double task of proving they can kickstart France’s stagnant economy (despite low growth and stubbornly high unemployment) and find new ways of reaching out to the country’s working classes who form the bedrock of FN support.

Valls acknowledged this when he spoke in the wake of Sunday’s drubbing.

“By both voting and abstaining, the French people have again expressed their expectations, their demands, their anger and their weariness in facing the hardships of daily life. Unemployment, taxes, cost of living: I’ve heard your message,” he said.
 

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