France regional elections: Marine le Pen's far-right Front National a third force in France after huge poll gains

Country's darkly fearful political mood means the far right had scarcely needed to campaign - but Le Pen's chances of becoming France’s first woman President remain slight

The far-right Front National made unprecedented gains in the first round of regional French elections last night and seemed certain to take control of at least two regions for the first time in the new year.

Surfing on the anger and anxiety following the terror attacks in Paris, the allegedly “cleaned-up” far-right party led the polls in six out of 12 new super-regions created in mainland France last year.

The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, polled about 43 per cent in the Lille-Calais-Amiens region of northern France – reducing the ruling Socialist part to a miserable 18 per cent in one of its historic bastions.

Her harder-line niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 25, also scored more than 40 per cent in the Provence-Côte d’Azur region in the south. Both Le Pens appear to be in an unassailable position before the second round next Sunday and could, from January, govern two of the most important French regions with a combined population of 11 million people.

There was also a chance that the far right could capture two other regions – Burgundy and Alsace-Lorraine. The FN has never before governed any French region.

Across the nation, the FN ran just ahead of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains with about 29 per cent of the vote. The ruling centre-left had a miserable night with 23.6 per cent of the national vote – but seemed likely to hold onto at least four regions. The turn-out was just over 50 per cent, slightly up on the last regional elections in 2010.

Marine Le Pen said the result showed that the FN was now the “biggest single political party in France”. She added: “It is a magnificent result that we will treat with humility and a profound sense of responsibility”. 

Ms Le Pen could not have wished for a political mood or a cascade of events better suited to her populist, anti-establishment, anti-European and anti-immigrant themes. Even before the Syrian immigrant crisis and the jihadist massacre in Paris, the far right was heading for sweeping gains in this month’s regional elections. 

Who is Marine Le Pen?

The centre-left government is deeply unpopular; unemployment is at record levels; President François Hollande’s market-opening economic reforms are resented by many traditional left-wing voters; the centre-right Républicains are divided; and their leader Mr Sarkozy remains widely disliked.

In the three weeks since the Paris attacks, opinion polls had picked up a sharp, further swing to the Front National – although not in Paris or other cities potentially threatened by urban terrorism. 

Jérôme Fourquet, head of the Ifop polling organisation, pointed out that the far right has scarcely needed to campaign. “All the FN’s traditional themes have been at the centre of an incandescent news agenda,” he said. 

The mainstream political classes, the metropolitan elite and most of the media insist that France will not allow Islamic State to “divide” the majority population from the five million French citizens with origins in Muslim countries.

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The Front National disagrees – especially Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, despite her aunt’s claim to have “de-demonised” the party.

In a speech last week, Ms Maréchal Le-Pen said Muslims could not be French because they rejected France’s “customs and morals” rooted in Christianity.

The Front National is now established as a third force in French politics. With 29 per cent of the nationwide vote, Ms Le Pen has a springboard to run for the Elysée Palace in 18 months’ time.

However, her chances of becoming president remain slight. All polls suggest she will reach the two-candidate run-off in May 2017 but that she has no chance of assembling 50 per cent of French voters in the second round of a presidential poll.

Whichever party is first past the post in next Sunday’s poll will scoop a bonus of 25 per cent of all seats in the regional assembly. The rest of the seats are divided proportionally.

Based on last night’s results, the FN can be stopped from winning in the Lille-Calais-Amiens area and in Provence only by an alliance of the centre-right and centre-left. Mr Sarkozy last night ruled out such an alliance.

It might also be possible for all centre-left candidates on a region to withdraw, allowing Mr Sarkozy’s party a one-on-one fight with the FN.

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