It wasn’t an “earthquake” but Sunday’s electoral success by the Front National (FN) in France has nevertheless caused shockwaves. A party traditionally associated with antisemitism and racism is positioning itself as a mainstream political force, while opponents insist that the anti-immigrant bigotry of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has never gone away.
Whatever the true nature of the modernised FN, there is no doubt that its victory in a local council election in Brignoles, in the southern départment of Var, was a convincing one. Its candidate, Laurent Lopez, won just under 54% of the vote, claiming that his campaign messages were a strong reflection of the national mood in France. They included complaints about everything from economic mismanagement by the ruling Socialist party to Roma gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria setting up illegal shanty-towns around major cities. The alleged “Islamification” of France – the FN’s oldest and most venomous rallying cry – was also used to stir up vote-winning prejudice.
But increasing evidence of corruption within the mainstream political establishment translated into FN votes too. This ranged from the Socialist budget minister tasked with cutting down on financial fraud facing charges of tax evasion, to former president Nicolas Sarkozy finding himself at the centre of a flurry of sleaze investigations and spared the humiliation of a criminal trial just days before the second-round Brignoles vote.
A poll for the Nouvel Observateur indicated last week that the FN could now achieve about a quarter of the vote in next May’s elections to the European parliament, as working-class voters, disillusioned by the mainstream’s handling of the economy, reject both the ruling Socialists and the conservative UMP.
Marine Le Pen, daughter and political heiress of the FN’s firebrand founder, has softened the party to such an extent that she believes it is ready for government. Measures have included selecting electoral candidates from ethnic minorities and getting rid of some of the more extreme policies that helped to earn Le Pen Père a number of criminal convictions.
The FN won 6.4m votes in the first round of last year’s presidential election, and its leaders are convinced that this share will be bettered in mayoral and European elections in early 2014.
Its problem, however, is that, despite its high profile, it is still a limited-issue party favoured by voters who want to let off steam before going on to choose their preferred moderate in run-off votes. This was the case in 2002 when, infamously, Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in an “earthquake” presidential election, knocking the Socialist candidate out in the first round. There was such shock at the prospect of an FN president that his opponent, Jacques Chirac, won 82% of the final vote.
But whatever claims the FN makes about its rise after sweeping to victory in Brignoles, a sober analysis of its overall electoral success suggests that its status as a protest movement remains unchanged. It is represented in parliament by just two MPs and no senators. It has 118 regional councillors out of 1,880 – just over 6%. Out of 74 French MEPs, just three of them belong to the FN.
The figures simply do not support Marine Le Pen’s aspirations to help to form a government, let alone her own presidential ambitions. Her party’s limited success will continue to cause tremors as in-fighting in the main parties harms an already severely damaged French political landscape, but it will by no means come close to anything approaching real power. Like her father before her, she is an expert at stirring up a great deal of ill-feeling and making a lot of noise.