The center-right Republican Party was the big winner in the second round of France’s regional elections held last Sunday. Tactical moves by the Socialist Party helped the Republicans beat the far-right National Front (NF) party, which took the most votes in the first round of balloting, held the week before. The win boosts former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads the Republicans, in the presidential ballot in 2017. But while the NF has been shut out of regional governments, the party’s chief, Marine Le Pen, is an increasingly formidable force in French politics.
After the NF won the largest share of votes in the first round, political leaders throughout France recognized that priorities had to change. Competition between the two mainstream parties, the ruling Socialists and the opposition Republicans, had to be subordinated to the larger concern: containing the NF threat. As a result, the Socialists decided to withdraw candidates in several campaigns to avoid splitting the centrist vote, and urged party members to vote Republican.
The plan worked. The Republicans reportedly surged to about 40 percent of the national vote, the Socialists claimed 29 percent, and the NF trailed closely behind with 27 percent. That outcome was helped by a considerable increase in turnout between the two ballots: Just 50 percent of voters cast ballots in the first round, while 58 percent voted in round two. French voters seemed worried about an NF victory as well.
Sarkozy is the immediate beneficiary of this win. He is now the head of a newly rejuvenated party, one that is well positioned to contest from a natural right-wing position disaffected voters who back the NF. While celebrating the victory, leaders from both mainstream parties acknowledged that they could not take the win for granted and more attention must be paid to the issues that fuel NF votes.
Meanwhile, Le Pen may have been defeated at the ballot, but her message has, ironically, been reinforced. Coordination among Socialists and Republicans is proof to her and her supporters that “the system” protects itself. Her backers will continue to be “disenfranchised” until the NF prevails. This fight is not over.
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