Far-right National Front leads in first round of French regional elections

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen, won 42% of the vote in southeast France. The banner says “We are ready”. [Reuters]

France’s far-right National Front pulled off a historic win yesterday (6 December), topping the vote in the first round of regional elections, in a breakthrough that shakes up the country’s political landscape before 2017 presidential elections.

Boosted by fears over the Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on 13 November, as well as by record unemployment and immigration, Marine Le Pen’s party secured 29.4% of the vote nationally, the interior ministry said, with over 85% of the votes counted.

The conservative Republicans party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy and their allies came second in the overall national vote, while the Socialists came third with 22.7%, according to an interim count of the votes.

That is the highest score ever for the anti-Europe, anti-immigration party, which came first in six regions out of 13.

“This is a historic, extraordinary result,” FN lawmaker Marion Maréchal-Le Pen told TF1 television. “The old system died tonight.”

Twenty-five year old Maréchal-Le Pen, the granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and niece of party leader Marine, led the first round in southeast France with 42% – twice her grandfather’s score there in 2010.

Run-offs will be held on 13 December.

Even one outright victory would be a major boost for Le Pen, who wants a base of locally elected officials to help her target power at the national level.

>>Read: National Front MEP under investigation for Islam comments

Her eye is on the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections, with French politics now clearly a three-way race after Sunday’s election, ending decades of domination by the Socialists and conservatives.

While the FN is well placed to win one or more regions in the 13 December run-off, especially after Marine Le Pen attracted over 41% of the votes in the north, the Socialist party lowered its chances of doing so by announcing that it was pulling its candidates out of the race there and in the southeast.

The Socialist Party is putting up a “barricade” to the far-right where it is far behind, party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadélis said. “The Left is the last shield of democratic France against the xenophobic far-right,” he said.

However, opinion polls before the election had shown that Le Pen could win even if the Socialists pulled out.

‘The Shock’

Right-wing daily Le Figaro’s front page on Monday will read “The Shock,” while left-wing daily Liberation headlines “It’s getting closer,” referring to the party’s quest for power.

The FN’s success comes as a wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa boosts support for eurosceptic parties across Europe, from Germany’s AfD party to Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party and the Law and Justice government in Poland.

Long content with attracting protest votes, the FN has changed strategy since Le Pen took the party over from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, seeking to build a base of locally elected officials to target the top levels of power.

The FN has in the past won control of less than a dozen French towns, but has never taken an entire region.

>>Read: National Front joins anti-TTIP lobby

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy ruled out any pact with President François Hollande’s Socialist party to keep the far-right out.

The conservatives and their allies were leading in four regions, including Paris, and the Socialists in three. Sarkozy, who just a few weeks ago was hoping for a landslide victory that would boost his chances for 2017, faces a smaller victory than expected on 13 December because of the FN’s growing popularity.

Hollande’s Socialists, who had won all but one region in 2010, face major losses next week but can hope to win points in the longer term with their decision to pull out of some regions to try and keep the FN out of power there.

French regions rule over local transport and economic development as well as high schools and vocational training, with beefed-up powers after a reform that cut their numbers from 22 to 13. 

Former EU Commissioner Michel Barnier recently told EURACTIV he saw a serious risk of the EU disintegrating, mentioning the regional elections in his country, where polls had predicted that Front National could earn as much as 30% of the vote.

>> Read: Barnier: The EU is at risk of disintegration

“In many countries we see the rise of populist movements, all of which are anti-European, protectionist, opposed to the single market, which advocate the return to the nation or even to nationalism,” he said.

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