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Voters to Far Right: "Thou Shall Not Pass!"

"Sixty million Frenchmen can't be wrong", proclaims a popular book title. But just over six million far-right Front National voters can be wrong - very wrong - as France's regional elections just proved, writes France 24's Douglas Herbert.

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They huffed. And they puffed.

And for a watchful, week-long interlude, it looked like the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, and her faithful foot soldiers just might blow France's Republican house down.

On the morning after the second and final round of the country's regional elections, France is breathing a collective sigh of relief at the electoral drubbing inflicted on an extreme-right party that pandered to voters' basest fears about security, immigration and the post-November 13 terror threat.

After winning six of 13 regions in the first round of elections a week ago, the Frontists were routed in Sunday's final-verdict balloting, failing to carry a single region.

“Thou shall not pass!”

In a Gandalf-style display of defiance, voters from across France's political spectrum sent a thundering ultimatum to the Le Pen clan - to Aunt Marine, to her strident young niece, Marion, and to all the rest: "Thou shall not pass!"

When push came to shove in the final round, French voters flocked to the polls in droves to stop the far-right's advance in its tracks.

Abstentionism was blamed by many for the National Front's strong showing in the first round.

In Sunday's vote, turnout jumped by about nine percent, to just under 59 percent, as voters awakened to the heightened stakes.

To be sure, the National Front's shellacking had less to do with voters' sudden passion for the mainstream left and right parties, and more to do with finely tuned tactical politics and visceral fear - especially among voters sympathetic to the Left.

Between rounds, the Socialists committed the electoral equivalent of hara-kiri. They withdraw their candidates in two regions - one in the North, where Marine Le Pen herself was on the ballot, and the other in the South, where her niece was in top contention - where the National Front had tallied its biggest scores in the first round.

Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, warned darkly of “civil war”. Another party leader chimed in that a National Front government would be akin to the Nazi-era collaborationist regime at Vichy.

A strategy that paid off

The doomsday rhetoric was intended to pave the way in France’s far-right-leaning bastions for a head-to-head showdown between the Conservative party of Nicolas Sarkozy, Les Républicains, and the Far-right.

The bet paid off. Yet the outcome has also given the National Front an opening to denounce what Marine Le Pen describes as mafia-like collusion by a power-obsessed political elite bent on thwarting the popular will.

Of course, there is an element of truth in the accusation: the system was, indeed, "rigged" to minimize the chances of a far-right of victory wherever it loomed largest.

But it is equally true that voters ultimately had free choice to vote their minds. No one was forcing anyone, at knife point, to pay fealty to the mainstream parties.

Record number of Far Right votes

While French voters have repelled the National Front - for now - the party itself remains convinced that what we saw yesterday was merely a setback, the inevitable result of a cynical political calculus that is destined to ultimately backfire.

Some 6.6 million voters stuck with the National Front in the second round – a record number of votes, and more than the far right party garnered in the first round in 2012.

The party has gained hundreds of regional councilors throughout France – a grass-roots political base that the pundits say will be ready foot soldiers as the party gears up for the 2017 presidential race in less than 18 months time. Assuming it doesn't succumb to in-fighting of its own.

Many observers here see it as highly likely - if not probable - that the contest will see an emboldened Far Right, led by Marine Le Pen, make it to the second round against a conservative or Socialist (more likely the latter) challenger in 2017.

Toxic political climate for 2017

The last time France saw such a scenario was the shock election of 2002, in which National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen upset Socialist Lionel Jospin to face incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second round, sparking widespread hand-wringing and consternation across the establishment.

French voters of all political stripes rallied around conservative Chirac, and the gates to power slammed shut in the FN’s face.

The National Front will be well-served by the sundry divisions among the conservatives. Sarkozy, who is gunning for another stint in the Elysee Palace, caused a minor uproar here in some quarters when he equated a vote for the Socialists with a vote for the Far Right.

Sarkozy, critics say, has veered further to the right in his bid to corral France’s disaffected voters, even as he publicly lambasts the National Front. Many in his own party see him as an unreconstructed egoist who has learned nothing from his 2007 defeat.

Like Donald Trump in the US, I don’t see a realistic pathway to power for Marine Le Pen and the far right now, or in the near future, despite the rampant rank-and-file disaffection with politicians.

But like the more virulent Republicans in the US, she has already prompted politicians who crave her voters to lurch dangerously to the right in the debate over what it means to be an open and tolerant society in the 21st century.

This article was originally published on December 14, 2015.

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