3 December 2015

First test after Paris attacks

French voters are about to head to the polls for the first time since last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris. This alone is enough to make the upcoming regional elections particularly significant. It will also be the first time regional elections are held after a territorial reform law was adopted last year that cut the number of regions in ‘metropolitan France’ (that is, excluding overseas territories) down from 22 to thirteen.

The first round will take place on Sunday 6 December. If no regional president candidate secures an absolute majority of votes – which looks very likely to be the case in all regions – all candidates that have won at least 10% of the vote in the first round gain access to the second round, scheduled for Sunday 13 December. The candidate who wins most votes in the second round is also granted a bonus of 25% of seats in the regional assembly.

In spite of French President François Hollande’s rather spectacular popularity gains in the wake of the Paris attacks (20 percentage points in one month according to the latest TNS poll for Le Figaro, for instance), his Socialist Party is most certainly going to come out of this election worse-off.

I say this because, in the 2010 regional elections, the Socialist Party and other left-wing forces won 21 of 22 regions – the worst score of the Fifth Republic for the centre-right.

Following the successful experiment of the local elections earlier this year, Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party will contest also this regional election on a joint ticket with the centrist parties UDI and MoDem. Conversely, the left side of the spectrum will very much stick to chacun pour soi (every man for himself).

Front National on course for historic result

However, as in pretty much every recent French election, all eyes will be on the performance of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. According to the latest polls, the anti-immigrant party looks close to a breakthrough at the regional level – as the map below (courtesy of Francetv Info) shows.

151203_France itemprop=

The two regions in navy would be won by Front National, according to the most recent surveys conducted. The regions in blue would go to Sarkozy’s centre-right alliance, and those in red to the Socialist Party. The regions in grey are too close to call.

Front National has never governed a French region. It now looks on course to win two of them – which would be a historic result. One is PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) in the South-East, where Front National usually does pretty well and where Marion Maréchal-Le Pen – Marine’s niece – is running for regional president.

More significantly, the other one is Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie up in the North – where Marine Le Pen herself is contesting the regional presidency. As the name suggests, this region includes the city of Calais and the surrounding areas – meaning that the on-going refugee crisis is likely to have played a role in driving support for Front National up. A victory for Marine Le Pen would mark a huge shift: the old Nord-Pas de Calais region (now merged with Picardy after the recent territorial reform I mentioned above) has been governed by the left since direct elections of regional assemblies started in the 1980s.

It also looks like Marine Le Pen and other Front National candidates will have another advantage compared to previous regional elections. Historically, in order to keep Front National out of power, the less voted of the two mainstream parties in the first round pulled out of the second round and recommended voting for the other mainstream party. In French politics, this is commonly known as the ‘Republican Front’.

However, essentially ignoring the suggestion made by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Sarkozy has said that centre-right candidates will stand in all regions where they gain access to the second round – which can ultimately make Front National’s task easier.

The outcome of Sunday’s first round will be interesting, for instance as regards the share of the nationwide vote parties will win. However, we will have to wait one more week for the final results of these regional elections. Securing control of one or two regions would further reinforce my view that a growing number of French voters are starting to see Front National as a credible alternative. No longer just a protest party, but rather a party they would want to be governed by – at least at the local/regional level.

The 2017 French presidential election will no doubt be a very different proposition, but the upcoming regional elections could make it even more difficult to keep considering Marine Le Pen as just ‘the outsider’ in the race to the Élysée.