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Have terror attacks boosted France’s National Front?

Miguel Medina, AFP | Marine Le Pen attends a ceremony to honour the victims of the November 13 Paris attacks

France’s far-right National Front (FN) on Sunday gained a record 27.7 percent of the vote in the first round of regional elections, a victory that may have been helped by the November 13 Paris attacks.


Sunday’s result, just three weeks after the terrible attacks in Paris that cost 130 lives, put the FN 2.5 percent ahead of the results from their last moderately successful political outing, France’s departmental elections in March 2015 (departments are smaller administrative regions).

This 2-3 point shift is significant. The FN scored more than 40 percent in Sunday’s first round in two of the country’s 13 regions – Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA) – well ahead of the mainstream conservative Les Républicains (formerly known as the UMP) candidates, who came second.

Even with the withdrawal of the Socialist contenders to allow for a straight fight between two leading candidates (Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has told party supporters to vote for Les Républicains in these regions), the prospect of the FN winning in Sunday’s run-off in these regions remains a very real possibility.

Fear of terrorism

The FN has grown in the three decades of its existence from a fringe party to a mainstream anti-Europe and anti-immigration party, helped by leader Marine Le Pen’s moderately successful efforts to cleanse the party of its image as a hotbed of racism and anti-Semitism.

The FN’s steady growth has fed off very real fears of growing unemployment, industrial decline, globalisation, the European single currency, petty crime, and of course the impact of France’s large Muslim population.

According to a December 6 Ipsos poll, 40 percent of French voters wanted to use Sunday’s first round as a punishment vote against French President François Hollande and his ruling Socialist party, which has failed to breathe new life into France’s moribund economy.

This is particularly the case with FN voters. Of these, 44 percent said they were motivated by unemployment. But a second motivation, cited by 32 percent of FN supporters, was fear of terrorism.

According to Ipsos, these voters believe the FN, which wants to crack down on immigration, restrict freedoms and boost security measures, is the best placed to protect France from these threats.

Fantasy and reality

It is paradoxical, however, that those voters who live in Paris, where the attacks actually took place, are far less inclined to vote FN than those who live outside the city. In the same vein, urban dwellers who live cheek by jowl with migrants and their descendents tend not to support Le Pen’s anti-immigration party.

Those who are not exposed to migrants or were not physically close to the attacks seem to be motivated by fantasy rather than reality, perhaps spurred on by shocking television images of migrant waves and violence they haven’t actually experienced.

While it is impossible to know for certain if the Paris attackers planned their killing spree to come just before these important regional elections in a bid to upset the democratic balance in France, such a move would have precedents.

The Madrid train bombings in March 2004, in which 191 people were killed, came three days before parliamentary elections. These were won by the socialists, who had been trailing in the polls and had promised to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq (which they duly did).

The FN is probably the most attractive French party for the IS group (which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks), not least because Le Pen has been firmly opposed to any French military intervention in Syria.

It isn’t in the realm of conspiracy theory to state that voters are emotionally sensitive and that their fears are easily manipulated by terrorists. And it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that these extremely violent attacks compounded existing fears of a potentially terrorist-infiltrated deluge of refugees from Syria, thus spurring 2-3 percent of the French electorate to switch their allegiance away from Les Républicains, led by conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy, into the arms of the FN.

FN momentum

The ruling Socialists, all things considered, haven’t done too badly. While they came third, with 22 percent of the vote, they were already unpopular with an electorate frustrated with France’s sluggish economic growth. The government’s dignified response to the attacks paid dividends. The Socialists were actually predicted to do much worse in last week’s vote.

But the fact remains that the FN was the most popular party in the first round. The 2-3 percent shift from the mainstream right to the FN may seem like a small number. But with the momentum enjoyed by the FN since January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, helped by events on November 13, this shift means Le Pen’s party looks likely on Sunday to take control of two of France’s most populous regions.

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