This is democracy – Marine Le Pen deserves the test of French power

Personally, I was surprised the Front National did not do better

Mary Dejevsky
Wednesday 09 December 2015 18:50 GMT
Marine Le Pen's Front National topped opinion polls in six out of 12 regions in mainland France at the weekend
Marine Le Pen's Front National topped opinion polls in six out of 12 regions in mainland France at the weekend (Rex)

The second and last stage of this weekend’s regional elections in France is being viewed with trepidation. The fear is that the results will confirm a sharp turn to the right in French national politics that makes the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, a credible presidential contender in 2017.

And while France’s chattering classes agonise over what this might mean for the future of their country, those elsewhere ponder the impetus that a victory in France might give to the centrifugal forces already gathering in Europe. A Le Pen presidency plus a British vote to leave the EU could summarily end the 20th-century European dream.

Before despair overtakes all those of us who delight in France and stubbornly hope that the European Union can flourish, however, it is worth looking more closely at what the latest French vote really says. Is the future as black as it is being painted?

The 13 November attacks in Paris, coming so soon before the regional elections, were bound to colour the results, and it was the mark of a mature democracy that there was no move to postpone the vote. Personally, I was surprised the Front National did not do better. While topping the poll in six of the country’s regions, it took only one in three votes cast. Although a first electoral round always offers an opportunity for a protest vote, two in three voters rejected the far right.

Nor has its geographical reach expanded much. The first-round electoral map shows that the appeal of the Front National remains pretty much where it has always been: in the north, in the east and in the south. Marine Le Pen may have tried hard to “detoxify” the brand, and the far right may now enjoy stronger support in the regions to the south of Paris, but the contours have not dramatically changed.

The idea that the present rise of the far right is without precedent also needs to be challenged. The Front National has in the past held power in several towns and cities. They include Dreux to the west of Paris, and Orange and the port city of Toulon in the south. Some victories were associated with strong local characters; others with voters’ sense of grievance. Each and every time, however, the French mainstream has expressed its consternation - while doing little to address the causes.

More often than not, far-right mayors and councillors have simply faded away after failing to honour their promises. But over the years there have also been hints of (official?) skulduggery. Some promising second-tier Front National politicians have met unfortunate ends and scandals, such as the desecration of one particular Jewish cemetery at Carpentras in Provence, seemed to happen just as the Front National was on the up.

So the second-round results may or may not justify Marine Le Pen’s optimism. Forecasts suggest that the Front National could win power in three of France’s 12 mainland regions, but there is many a slip. To a large extent, the results depend on how the other parties play their hand.

This time, as in the past, it has been hard not to discern an element of self-deception in French attitudes – especially elite intellectual attitudes – to the Front National, and indeed (though such a judgment might seem harsh) to democracy itself. The most egregious example was in 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, took second place in the first round of the presidential poll, qualifying for the run-off against Jacques Chirac.

A host of reasons can be adduced for a result that at once distressed, and galvanised, France. The Socialists were sharply divided. Their candidate, Lionel Jospin, had all the merits and failings of the intellectual-turned-politician. Dissatisfied, or complacent, many supporters stayed at home. And while rumours of an upset proliferated in the 48 hours before voting, Le Pen’s second place still came as a bolt from the blue. Nowadays social media would probably have got the word out and got more people out to vote, but that offered no remedy then.

What happened next, however – and what has happened in other French elections, and will happen in some regions again on Sunday – was that the Socialists and Gaullists joined forces in a “republican front” to protect the state against the perceived threat from the far right. In 2002, the second round of the campaign saw huge, highly emotional demonstrations, a national mood of shame and no televised debate – which produced a landslide for Chirac out of all proportion to the level of his support in the country.

In other elections, the “republican front” requires a third-placed candidate to withdraw from the run-off to give the other mainstream candidate essentially a free pass. But the effect is the same – to keep the Front National tantalisingly at one remove from power. It also allows French voters – except for the far right hardcore – conveniently to “forget” that they ever cast a vote for the far right and loudly deplore their compatriots who did. It also allows the Front National to claim perennial victimhood and – not without reason – to question the quality of French democracy.

The defence of the “republican front” tactic is that the far right is too dangerous ever to be entrusted with serious power. But if that is so, surely the Front National must be proscribed. If it is legally constituted as a party and complies with election rules, it must be treated as such. There is much hypocrisy here, and it needs to end.

On Sunday, it appears that the “republican front” could be less solid than usual, which could in turn propel Marine Le Pen and her party into positions of responsibility they have not reached before. But Le Pen needs the test of power, and the third of French voters who supported her party last week deserve to see how their vote translates into action.

France needs to look itself squarely in the mirror. If the Front National continues to be artificially side-lined by a self-deceiving elite, its malign mystique will only grow.

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