PARIS – France’s mainstream political parties were Monday scratching their heads over what to do about a surge by the National Front after a breakthrough by-election win for the far-right party.
The ruling Socialist party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, face humiliating reverses in municipal and European elections next year if the National Front can sustain its current standing in the eyes of an electorate thoroughly fed-up with record unemployment, rising taxes, and a perceived increase in crime and insecurity.
A poll published last week suggested the National Front could emerge as the best-supported party in the European elections with 24 percent of those asked declaring themselves ready to back the party led by Marine Le Pen, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
That shock survey was followed on Sunday by a spectacular victory for the National Front in a local by-election in Brignoles, where National Front candidate Laurent Lopez claimed 53.9 percent of the vote in a runoff against the UMP candidate.
“The left and the mainstream right are blaming each other for what is happening, but the reality is they’ve both been knocked sideways,” said Nonna Mayer, the research director at the National Research Center CNRS. “Neither of them know what to do.”
There were particular, local factors in Brignoles that influenced the outcome of a vote being held for the third time, the result having been judged too close to stand on two previous occasions, when the runoff was between the National Front and the Communist Party.
The southeastern town has struggled with high unemployment since the closure of local aluminum mines in the 1990s, and the gloomy economic backdrop has exacerbated tensions between established residents and a large community of North African immigrants, creating fertile ground for the National Front in a region where it traditionally does better than elsewhere in France.
But the scale of the victory for Lopez was nevertheless widely interpreted as an indicator of how the National Front is capitalizing on current voter concerns to appeal to a broader slice of the electorate than ever before.
A smartly dressed former businessman, Lopez, 48, is the perfect embodiment of the more voter-friendly image that the National Front has projected since Marine Le Pen took over from her controversial father at the head of the party in 2011.
The pledges to end net immigration, most controversially by ripping up family reunion rules, and to begin moves to pull France out of the European Union, remain in place.
But the National Front is now far from being a one-issue party, notably making its voice heard on education to the extent that it has recently been able to announce the creation of a network of supporters among teachers — an unthinkable development a decade ago.
Marine Le Pen has worked hard to dispel the image of the party as fundamentally racist. She has expelled activists who make bigoted public statements and the National Front lists in next year’s municipal elections will include a handful of ethnic minority candidates.
All of which is making it harder for the mainstream parties to prevent the National Front from winning more than a handful of elected posts by treating it as a pariah party and urging their voters to cast their ballots tactically to keep them out of power, an approach referred to as the “Republican Front.”
“I think we can safely say the Republican Front is now dead,” Marine Le Pen declared after Sunday’s triumph in Brignoles, and her opponents acknowledged that she was probably right.
“It just doesn’t work, voters don’t like being told who to vote for,” said Thierry Mandon, the spokesman for the Socialists’ parliamentary party.
Despite the current disarray of the mainstream parties, Mayer still believes the recent upturn in the fortunes of the National Front remains primarily a protest phenomenon.
“The change of leadership has given the party a slightly slicker image, but for most French people, it remains an extreme right party founded on racist ideas that is incapable of governing,” Mayer said.
“Marine Le Pen does have a better image than her father. Unlike him she is not associated with the legacy of the World War II and anti-semitism,” he said.