14 December 2015

Front National fails to win any French region

For virtually every news outlet across Europe, this is the top line of the French regional election. Following a historic result in the first round, the self-styled ‘anti-globalist’ Front National failed to secure control of any French region in the second round – which took place yesterday. Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right alliance won seven of thirteen mainland regions up for grabs. President François Hollande’s Socialist Party won five, while local nationalists won in Corsica.

Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who was running in the Northern region, was beaten by centre-right candidate Xavier Bertrand by 57.8% to 42.2%. Similarly, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen was defeated in the South-Eastern PACA region by centre-right candidate Christian Estrosi by 54.8% to 45.2%. Crucially, the Socialist Party had unilaterally pulled out of the second round in both regions and openly endorsed centre-right candidates to stop Front National winning.

Marine will be disappointed, and so will Marion. In the first round, Front National had topped the polls in six regions. The breakthrough did really look close – but failed to materialise.

So what are the key lessons from this regional election? I can think of at least four.

Majority of French voters remain unconvinced by Front National’s detoxification

Marine Le Pen is investing a lot of energy in the dédiabolisation (de-demonisation) of her party. Yesterday’s results show her task is far from complete. Left-wing voters backed centre-right candidates en masse in the two regions where the Socialist Party had decided to pull out of the second round. In those regions where the second round was a three-way race, the significantly higher turnout – 58.4% nationwide, up from 49.9% in the first round – translated into a much bigger vote boost for mainstream parties than for Front National.

In other words, it is fair to say the increase in the number of French voters who headed to the polls yesterday was largely driven by an anti-Le Pen sentiment. Incidentally, this also explains why a French presidential election – where turnout is usually around 80% – is a far harder mountain to climb for Front National.

Sarkozy may have to rethink his strategy of trying to sound more like Le Pen

Sarkozy’s centre-right alliance won in more than half of the mainland regions – notably including Île-de-France, the region with Paris. However, the results are most likely not as good as he would have hoped. The 2010 regional election, which took place under his presidency, was an absolute disaster for the centre-right – which managed to win only one of the then 22 regions. Not only did Sarkozy clearly fail to inflict the same crushing defeat on Hollande, but two of seven regions were won by the centre-right only thanks to the voluntary withdrawal of the Socialist Party – which will now be able to claim the moral high ground for sacrificing itself in the name of ‘republican values’.

Generally speaking, it looks like his strategy of taking a harder stance on issues such as immigration – in a clear attempt to attract right-wing voters – has not quite paid off this time around. Despite running on a joint ticket with the centrist UDI and MoDem, Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party finished behind Front National in the first round.

In addition, Sarkozy’s decision to refuse tactical alliances with the left in the second round has drawn criticism from both his centrist allies and some of the more centrist members of his own party – including Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, his ‘number two’. Keeping centrist voices (and voters) on board will be important to Sarkozy’s bid to win back the keys of the Élysée Palace in 2017.

The Socialist Party can no longer afford to run on its own

I think President Hollande can be reasonably satisfied with this regional election. After a very disappointing first round, winning five of thirteen regions does not sound bad at all. The lesson for him is that – now that France is a three-party country – the Socialist Party should do a better job of mustering alliances with other left-wing forces already in the first round, similar to what Sarkozy has done with centrist parties since his political comeback.

This is particularly true for the presidential election, where only the two most voted candidates gain access to the second round. Running on its own against a centre-right alliance and a surging Front National, the Socialist Party would inevitably face a bigger risk of being left out of the final run-off.

No time for mainstream parties to pat themselves on the back

Finally, it is worth taking a closer look at yesterday’s results to put Front National’s ‘defeat’ into perspective. Countrywide, the party won over 6.8 million votes. Needless to say, this is a new record high – beating the 6.4 million votes Marine Le Pen obtained in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. Significantly, the new peak has been reached in a regional election – where Front National has been historically weak.

Compared to the mainstream parties, Front National candidates did not make big gains between the first and the second round – but, with the exception of the Paris region, they all saw their vote tally increase. Marine Le Pen won over 60% of the vote in Hénin-Beaumont, a northern town run by a Front National mayor. Her niece Marion won over 53% of the vote in Fréjus, a south-eastern town also administered by Front National.

To me, these numbers speak of a party that is consolidating its grip at the local level – hardly a defeat with a view to the next presidential election. If anything, the chance of Marine Le Pen making it to the second round in 2017 looks bigger after this regional election – not smaller. As such, any complacency from the French political establishment would be hugely misplaced.

As I wrote here, the country’s mainstream parties should engage in sweeping reform at home and in Europe. This is really no time to pat themselves on the back.