The victory of the far-right National Front (NF) in France’s regional elections last weekend was no surprise. Even though President Francois Hollande has finally risen to the demands of his office in his response to the horrific terror attacks in Paris in November, NF leader Marine Le Pen is seen by many French people as the politician who best captures the national mood, and is increasingly viewed as the front-runner for the next presidential ballot in 2017.
Since its foundation, the NF has slowly migrated from the fringes of politics to the mainstream, using fear and resentment of immigrants to boost its appeal. In the five years since she took over the party, Le Pen has abandoned the crude anti-Semitism of her father, the NF’s founder. Instead, she speaks in more populist tones, playing up fears of security, both physical and economic, while arguing that the country’s traditional leadership is too distanced from ordinary citizens’ concerns.
That approach paid off in the recent ballot. The National Front was first in the popular vote, winning 28 percent of ballots cast nationally, and it was ahead in six of the races to run France’s 13 regions. A second round of voting will occur on Sunday and experts predict the NF will prevail in at least two of the regions.
The NF’s success will also depend on the degree to which Hollande’s Socialists and the center-right Republican party, headed by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, are prepared to join forces against it. In the past, the two mainstream parties agreed that the NF was beyond the pale and electoral cooperation was desirable to block its ascent. That may not be the case this time. After the last Sunday vote, Sarkozy said he would “neither withdraw, nor fuse” with any other party.
If that is not a bargaining tactic, the center will remain divided and the NF will be the governing party in several regions. They will then serve as the platform for Le Pen’s assault on the presidency. France’s mainstream politicians have a year and a half to reclaim their politics.
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