The warnings from France’s far-right

Far Right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen leaves after delivering her speech after the results of the second round of the regional elections in Henin-Beaumont, northern France. Photo: AP  

For France’s far-right, it wasn’t supposed to end this way. Between the two rounds of the regional elections, Marine Le Pen had assured voters that the Front National (FN) could win “four or five” of 13 regions. Local FN candidates, fresh from their strong performance in the first round, believed that this time the party would break through the “glass ceiling” and actually gain control of a major territorial unit.

Emile Chabal
The FN’s rhetoric was amplified by the media. French and European newspapers warned of the imminent coming of the far-right. After many years of knocking at the door, this election was supposed to mark the FN’s arrival on the national political scene and the beginning of a new political configuration. This was not simply idle talk: the left-wing coalitions in two key regions withdrew their lists entirely to block the FN. They, too, believed the far-right was at the gates of power.

A fringe player

But it quickly became clear on Sunday night that the wind had changed. As the exit polls turned into actual results, all FN hopes evaporated. The party had come first in six regions in the first round, but it had failed to win overall control of any single region after the second round on Sunday. Marine Le Pen’s angry concession speech denounced the current political “system” but her hyperbole could not hide the fact that these results were a bitter disappointment.

So where did it go wrong? The answer is simple: the FN remains a party on the margins of French politics. Despite vigorous efforts in the past few years to make the FN more palatable by softening its rhetoric on immigrants and expelling the most obviously anti-Semitic and racist activists, the majority of the French electorate still believes the FN’s policies to be unworkable. Its value is principally as a party of protest, not a party of government.

One of the main consequences of this is that the FN does not benefit from any tactical vote transfer from other parties — a crucial stepping stone to success in a two-round electoral system. Over the years, more and more people are voting for the FN, but the party’s unwillingness to form any alliances and its lack of legitimacy have consistently pushed it away from victory.

This long-standing tendency was confirmed yet again in this election where the FN’s vote share fell from 27.73 per cent in the first round to 27.10 per cent in the second round. A huge increase in turnout (from 49.91 per cent in the first round to 58.41 per cent in the second round) and a series of tactical alliances within and between the mainstream parties ensured that even where the FN might have won, it found itself far behind.

Issues despite propitious climate

This is hardly a cause for triumphalism. The centre-right under Nicolas Sarkozy limped to a victory in these elections, but only because the left withdrew altogether in two regions. And the centre-left Socialists have taken a beating, both in the areas they lost and in the areas where there will be no left-wing regional councillors at all because there was no left-wing presence in the second round. But for all the gloom, these elections are a reminder that the nightmare scenario of a dominant far-right is very far from the reality in France and, indeed, in western Europe more generally.

After all, these were elections where the FN was expected to do very well. Of the top four campaign issues, the first was unemployment, but the other three were immigration, security and terrorism. This is hardly surprising given that the November 13 attacks in Paris and Europe’s migrant crisis loomed large on the political scene in France. If there was ever a time for the far-right to capitalise on a profound sense of insecurity, it was now.

And yet the party failed to score the spectacular victory it so desperately wanted. It is true that the FN received more votes than ever before in French electoral history (6.8 million), but this was undone by a sharp rise in voter turnout across the board. Likewise, the number of FN regional councillors has tripled (from 120 to 316), but this still makes up only 18 per cent of the total number of regional councillors in France. Whichever way you look at it, the FN — like many other far-right parties in Europe — faces intractable problems, even in the most propitious climate.

In some ways, there are parallels here with the situation of the French Communist Party, which was one of the largest parties in France in the period from 1945 to 1970 but consistently failed to gain adequate representation in the national parliament or in regional assemblies. Only when the Communists were willing to join forces with moderate left-wing parties — as they did in 1981 — were they able to play a part in government.

But there is a fundamental difference between the French Communist Party in the 1950s and the FN in the 2010s. It is not simply that one was a party of the far-left and the other is a party of the far-right; rather, it is that the FN relies exclusively on elections for its legitimacy. Whereas Communists had a whole world of associative life, trade unions and cultural organisations that gave the movement its strength, the FN today has nothing more than its electoral success.

Paradoxically, then, the FN is completely dependent on the democratic system it so violently attacks. Like many other far-right parties, it denounces the insider trading of French politics and the “corruption” of the European Union while simultaneously striving to build a stronger party structure and gain power through regional, national and European elections. As Sunday’s results prove, it is hard to sustain this contradiction.

Confronting Europe’s problems

This is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. On the contrary, the success of the FN — and of other Eurosceptic, right-wing populist parties in countries like Denmark, Hungary or the United Kingdom — is deeply troubling. In part, this reflects the dizzying rise of immigration as an electoral issue in Europe since the 1980s. It also reflects the fact that European electorates have become more concerned about the inability of their national governments to implement economic reform in a globalised economy. And, since austerity policies have become the norm since the financial crisis of 2008, the far-right’s message of closed borders, closed societies and economic protectionism seems to ring true.

But the far-right has not yet been able to govern as a majority party anywhere in Europe. In places where it has done well, it has been held at between 15-30 per cent of the vote and has only been able to enter government through coalitions. The chances of, say, the UK Independence Party winning 200 seats in the U.K. Parliament in 2020 or of Marine Le Pen winning the presidential election in France in 2017 are virtually non-existent. The overwhelming majority of the European electorate still identify with mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties.

This means that, while the partial success of the FN is not necessarily a calamity, it is a warning. Europe’s political elites should take heed. They should not chase after the far-right’s polarising and xenophobic rhetoric, but they do need to think hard about what unites them and how they can address major issues like climate change together.

One can only hope that the threat of the far-right has the positive side effect of focussing the minds of politicians, especially on the left. Surely the time has now come for a new popular front that will challenge the far-right and offer socially-conscious solutions to Europe’s problems.

(Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of A Divided Republic: Nation,

State and Citizenship in Contemporary France. )

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