It seems that 2015 has not been a particularly pleasant year for France. As it’s ‘Année terrible’ draws to a pessimistic end, the political landscape has become ever more divisive. Shaken and weary, the national psyche of the French people has essentially become trapped in a flux-like state, with the desire to maintain the nationalistic prestige that the country is so famous for.
The issue of identity in France remains as poignant as ever, and when the electorate are disgruntled, rogue elements often seek to capitalise, divide and victimise those who are vulnerable. Back in January 2015, the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo shocked the world, and freedom of speech was seen to be confronted with bloodshed. “Je suis Charlie” became a hallmark campaign of international solidarity, with patriotic rallies and choruses of La Marseillaise ringing through the streets of Paris, London, Berlin and wherever else the French diaspora may call their abode. The November Paris attacks however, left a more dispirited aftermath, with a marked shift towards somberness rather than emotive patriotism. But in a country that has been left shaken by terrorist attacks both at the opening of the year, and towards the end of 2015, fertile ground has been made for the National Front (Front National) to harvest the discontent of French voters.
They Are Coming
Whilst France has often been characterised as progressive in its political outlook, the National Front is currently riding on a right-wing mixture of overt post-terrorist patriotism, and a defensive fear of foreign infiltration, but it hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when the National Front was a rather unorthodox party in France, particularly throughout the late 1980s and 1990’s as the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen had anchored the movement into the political wilderness; at one time citing his disgust at France’s national team having “too many foreign players… not reflecting French society”. Similarly a few years later, Le Pen became the only politician in the world to link climate change with communism; a belief that led him to be universally panned.
Times had changed, and in this world of media scrutiny, Le Pen 2.0 came into being, with an ambition to turn the National Front from a party of quasi-neo nazi’s and provincial superduponts into a respectable, contemporary, patriotic force. Enter Marine Le Pen, the stringent daughter of Jean-Marie. Marine has attempted to bring the party away from the auspices of political mockery, and into the limelight, and she appears to be succeeding in this. Despite the ideological spats she has had with her father concerning his comments about gas chambers and desires to save the “white world”, Marine Le Pen has acted rather brashly to pull the party away from political annihilation, starting with the expulsion of her father from the top ranks of the National Front.
Having steered the rudder towards the more contemporary issues concerning the far-right, the prevention of France’s purported “Islamification” became the party’s main concern, much in line with the motives of Germany’s PEDIGA movement, or the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Whilst this transformation has left a lot to be desired for much of France’s electorate, the outside ambiences of the refugee crisis, the so-called global jihad, and the perceived affronts to civil liberties from the European Union has propelled the National Front to the centerstage.
Alas, the first round of regional elections arrived on December 6th, 2015, at a rather sensitive time given the recentness of the November Paris attacks. Whilst it is typical of a ruling party to perform well following a national incident such as a terrorist attack, it has not been the case this time round, in fact, Christmas has come rather early for the National Front. The far-right party won 30.6% of the vote; whilst not particularly impressive in numerical terms, the National Front were able to kick the mud into the face of their mainstream opponents. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains garnered 27.2%, whilst the incumbent president Francois Hollande had a rather rough night at the ballot box with a meagre 22.7%. Other than a rejection of France’s mainstream parties, how significant is this result for the National Front?
To answer this question, we first must understand that Marine Le Pen’s hour has finally arrived, and there appears to be a breakthrough, although it is too early to suggest whether such an electoral lead can be sustained in the long term. Le Pen has indeed benefited from the political fallout of last month’s terrorist attacks, as she was able to swing the national debate in her favour, campaigning on security, and the reluctance to assist migrants both in Calais, and across Europe. Whilst these elections are just for the regional assembly, such votes are often an indicator on the electorates intentions for the presidential elections, yet this is not due to happen until 2017. That being said, a Hollande-Le Pen run off election for 2017 is a likely outcome if French politics decides to follow it’s current course, but Francois Hollande would have to try and attempt to translate his personal popularity following the Paris attacks into votes; something that he has yet to achieve for his struggling Socialist Party.
As the second round of voting took place on 13th December, another subsequent victory for the National Front would deal a bitter blow to France’s progressive outlook. It has now been over a month since 130 people had lost their lives in a series of attacks that shocked and saddened the people of this diverse nation, and security remains at the forefront of voters concerns, a strength that Le Pen can capitalise on, but there are also more grave concerns at hand. Unemployment has hit an 18-year high, and France’s economy is faltering behind the likes of the United Kingdom and Germany, which further adds to the discontent that voters may have, and Le Pen may not have the answers for these issues.
Moreover, the second round may prove to be a challenge for the National Front, as the mainstream parties have historically united to keep minor parties out of power following a poor performance. What can be said is this; nothing is predictable in French politics, and other National Front victory would send shockwaves throughout all of Europe. It may spur on other right-wing groups in neighbouring countries, or perhaps an effective left-wing bloc will be formed to keep Le Pen out of public office. Meanwhile, the underrepresented of France hold their breath, hoping that the far-right are kept at bay.
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