The Front National Breaks Through

Jeremy Harding

Sunday mid-afternoon at our nearest polling station – a modest mairie which now opens only a couple of times a week –the voting in the first round of France’s regional elections was desultory. The deputy mayor had reckoned on 40 per cent of the voters turning out by teatime, but they hadn’t. In a flower border where the council planted out a few perennials earlier this year, some of the shrubs had been removed during the night. Three gendarmes were hard at work on forensics, taking photos of the holes.

Until now local voting patterns have lined up with the rest of the country: this isn’t Peter Mayle or Brad and Angelina territory, where the Front National has looked promising for several years. But it’s atypically down-at-heel, with the poorest 10 per cent of individuals in the commune living on €381 per month – the figure is €577 in France as a whole – and median income €300 below the national average. At every contest since 2002 I’ve expected the Front National to break through. And this time it has, with 37 per cent of the vote, ten points ahead of the socialists’ list, leaving the centre right in third place. In the country as a whole, the FN has done extraordinarily well with around 29 per cent of the vote.

President Hollande and his team told citizens to flock to the polls as an act of defiance against IS and the attacks of 13 November, but only half the voters showed up for round one. Nonetheless they’ve hammered the socialists’ list, in the last major elections before the presidentials in 2017, when Hollande will be drummed out of the Elysée. They’re also the first, as far as I know, to be held under a national state of emergency, in an unfamiliar local government landscape. Incapable of so much else, Hollande’s government has managed to redraw the regions: on the mainland there are now 12 instead of 21. The FN has won the first round comfortably in six. The centre left has come third in seven and won in two.

Before the ‘territorial reform’ a region had to allocate money for schools and transport networks, including local train services. The new regional councils are expected to support business, fix environmental problems, plug ‘sustainability’ and come up with five-year plans for nebulous, Eurofriendly goals, including regional ‘innovation’. Central government support has been a vexed question, especially for poorer regions, but up till now no one has asked what will happen if the FN ends up in charge. All the parties fought the first round on the big national issues, even though regional councils are administrative purgatory, their brief both finicky and cumbersome, without much scope for grand notions. The FN has shown no interest in the nitpicking detail and it has no record when it comes to hefty, complicated bureaucracies. Marine Le Pen’s people have campaigned on fear, foreigners and insecurity, but who can say if the trains will run on time?

Losers step aside: this is the centre’s option for the next round in the six critical regions, and in all but one case the centre-left came in third. Already Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, have decided not to contest two regions where Le Pen and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, each took 40 per cent of the vote. Despite gains of these proportions, the centre-right have yet to say they’ll play along with the idea of a ‘republican front’, and a socialist candidate in a third region where the FN are ahead has refused to fold the list, in spite of the party’s announcement that it will have to be done. Round two is on Sunday and there’s still time to strike some bitter deals. Never mind the spectre of incompetence: the ideological force of an FN victory, even in just one of the regions, would be a triumph for the party and burnish Le Pen’s prospects for the presidential race in 2017.