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France • Populism • Elections

Can the Front National be stopped?

Renaud Thillaye - 10 December 2015

Electoral tinkering will achieve little. The Socialists require a radical new approach to address the deep structural reasons behind the FN’s success

On Sunday, the French Socialist party (PS) was humiliated in the first round of the regional elections. The blow did not come from the traditional centre-right opposition, but, once again, from the Front National (FN). That Nicolas Sarkozy’s Républicains (LR, the ex-UMP) also had to concede defeat and could not claim the mantle of the main opposition force was of little consolation. Since François Hollande’s election in 2012 the trend is unambiguous: the FN is edging closer to power in France.

Front National vote share and vote numbers (2010-2015)

A few figures suffice to illustrate the new reality of French politics. In 2012, Marine Le Pen received 17.9 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election and attracted 6.4 million people to her name, up from 4.5 million when her father made it to the second round in 2002. In March 2014, the municipal elections saw 11 FN mayoral candidates elected in middle-sized towns (above 10,000 inhabitants). Two months later Marine Le Pen’s party came first in the European elections with a score of nearly 25 per cent. On Sunday, FN candidates got the vote of 6.3 million voters representing 27.7 per cent of the voting share.

Next Monday, France might wake up with two to four FN region presidents. These could include Marine Le Pen in the North-Picardie region and her niece (and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s granddaughter), Marion Maréchal Le Pen, in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur. Both received a remarkable 40 per cent vote share in the first round. Other possible wins include the regions of Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardennes and Languedoc-Midi-Pyrennées. Out of 13 regions, the PS’s hopes rest on three of them: Ile-de-France (ie the Paris region), Aquitaine and Brittany, where, in a notable exception, the defence minister Jean-Yves le Drian performed remarkably well.

The irony is that the PS government pushed through a reform of regions last year which brought down their numbers from 22 to 13. Though they come short of regulatory and tax powers, future regional executives will have a clear leadership in the field of economic development, education and skills. In other words, the FN is about to take control of powerful platforms and substantial resources ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

The PS reaction so far has been to try and avoid FN wins next Sunday at any price. Under the insistence of the party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis and the prime minister Manuel Valls, PS lists withdrew in North and Provence despite the fact that they passed the 12.5 per cent of registered voters to make it to the second round. Valls openly called to vote for centre-right lists and even floated the idea of combined lists. Yet, the idea of a grand coalition style ‘front républicain’ has met a lot of scepticism. First, the PS head of list in Alsace-Champagne-Ardennes has refused to withdraw, reflecting the widespread view among party members that they should not ‘commit suicide’ for the benefits of the centre-right and forgo any opposition role in the event of FN executives. Second, Sarkozy has openly rejected any sort of ‘front républicain’. In the regions where the PS came second and LR third, the centre-right will stand in the second round.

More crucially, cornering FN voters as utterly wrong and calling for a ‘front républicain’ reinforces the sense that the mainstream parties co-opt each other and stick to their power privileges by all means. The FN has long suffered from the two-round voting system at the legislative elections, which explains why it has only two MPs. Perhaps it is time to let go and accept that the FN will govern in a few regions. Exercising responsibilities will leave them exposed to criticism, and some voters will soon realise that they do not better. Furthermore, the risks should not be exaggerated: France remains a country with a solid public administrative culture. Civil servants and judges can be trusted to make sure FN regions do not cross the line of openly discriminatory or dysfunctional policies. Eighteen months of FN municipalities have brought their expected lot of controversies and divisive rhetoric, but little substantial change.

Beyond short-term electoral tinkering, the PS should spend all its energy to analyse and address the deep structural reasons behind FN’s success. Artificially compartmentalising explanations into socioeconomic, cultural and political factors is one way to go about it, but it risks falling into the same old trap of piecemeal answers. The FN will not be defeated with a few soundbites on security and national identity, or with a return to 1980s national-Keynesianism. Change is systemic, and Marine Le Pen’s party has made huge gains on aggregating the very diverse constituencies who, for one reason or another, feel that they lose out from it. Her voters might be comfortable with xenophobic prejudice, but this is not the point: they want to regain control over their destiny, they do not trust the elites’ technocratic language and supposed expertise any longer, and they have nothing to lose in trying more radical options.

Acknowledging the breadth of the economic, social and cultural change undergone by European societies, and showing some empathy for people struggling to cope with it, would be the very first step to regain trust. Humility has often failed to trickle through, perhaps because PS leaders and members have been little exposed to economic and social insecurities in their personal trajectory. Some of them (not all) also fail to lead by example when it comes to acting according to basic principles of common decency, and this makes a lot of noise.

Second, humility and empathy do not necessarily have to translate into saying that change can be easily stopped or slowed down – as we see with technology and immigration, it will happen anyway. Instead, it calls for getting a firm grip on it and giving people the tools to face it. As many people feel they have lost control, the centre left could rebuild its offer around the idea of restoring agency, both at state and individual level. Such a vision opens up to a vast agenda of new policy initiatives. One the one hand, the centre left should work on a renewed array of safety nets adapted to an era of highly unpredictable individual trajectories. On the other hand, it should more outspokenly promote deliberative practices and bottom-up contributions which help to manage change and break down social and cultural barriers. Again, to do this, the centre left will have to learn to let go, accept conflict, and stop patronising the public.

Renaud Thillaye is deputy director of Policy Network

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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