France’s extreme-right Front National (FN) Party has come out on top of the first round of voting in France’s regional elections, gathering 28% of the overall vote. The second round, on December 13, will tell the full story, as the ruling Socialist party and opposition Les Républicains may yet join to form a shared front, but it is not too early to notice that the FN’s local campaign is at odds with the fundamental nature of the party.
Comparing the speeches of FN leader Marine Le Pen, candidate for president of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy region (NPCP), and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, candidate in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region (PACA) with the party’s long-standing political program, two mutually exclusive conclusions can be drawn.
First, the FN does not respect its ideological foundations: the accusations of cronyism and political opportunism that it regularly levels against the major parties can be applied to its own ranks as well.
Second, despite the discourse of its candidates, the party will maintain its traditional ideological line, and in case of victory, its policies in the NPCP and the PACA are likely to be profoundly anti-regional.
Against decentralisation and local democracy
As its name and platform indicate, the FN is a party that completely rejects the principles of decentralisation, local democracy, and regional identity.
France traditionally had a highly centralised state, with powers and administration concentrated in Paris. The process of decentralisation, which began in the 1980s, consists in entrusting local bodies – municipalities, departments and regions – with more authority. Their decisions can then be implemented by officials who are closely connected with their communities. It’s easy to understand why issues such as transportation, education, and social services can be more effective and have greater legitimacy if they’re managed locally rather than nationally.
Today the process of decentralisation is one of the constitutional characteristics of France, as is its democratic, secular and social nature set out in the first article of the 1958 Constitution.
While the principle of decentralisation is supported by a large majority of France’s elected representatives, it is strongly criticised by the FN. Indeed, even as the FN promotes its candidates for the presidencies of France’s regions, Marine Le Pen has criticised them as being “totally irresponsible baronies”.
A ‘strong state’
In the party’s official program, decentralisation is accused of: “increasing inequality between territories and the French people, increasing the complexity of public decision, aggravating corruption and allowing the rebuilding of wasteful local fiefdoms.”
Arguing for a “strong state” that “unites the nation”, the FN proposes to significantly strengthen the authority of the prefects – representatives of state at the local level – over communities, by granting them the power to check local legislation, and reduce state grants to the regions by 2% to prevent the development of “baronies” and “fiefdoms”. As for the financial authority that local officials have today, the FN prefers control by an unelected official named by the state “from Paris”.
Despite regular diatribes by the FN against “Parisian elites”, the party believes that a “strong and true democracy is exercised at the level of the sovereign nation,” according to Bertrand Dutheil de la Rochère, an advisor for Marine Le Pen in 2012. He adds that citizens can “more easily give their opinion” if communities are directly administered by representatives of the central government.
Anyone who has visited a French prefecture knows well what kind of places they are for debate and the exchange of ideas…
Opposed to regional identities
That’s not all. While the FN regularly denounces foreign cultures and the “threats” they supposedly constitute to France’s identity, what’s less known is that they denounce regional cultures with equal vigour.
French citizens who speak regional languages such as Picard, Provençal, Alsacien or Breton should know that these traditions constitute an “attack” against the “unity of France and indivisibility of the Republic”, in the words of Florian Philippot, the party’s vice-president in charge of communication and strategy, because this runs the risk of “balkanising France”.
So the FN opposes France’s ratification of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages – by which France cannot be bound without a popular vote. The charter would provide speakers of regional languages with the legal and institutional means to ensure the survival of this cultural heritage, which is slowly disappearing.
The charter would, for example, enable parents to have their children study regional languages, and also enable legal texts to be published in them. This is an odd definition of an “attack” against “France”…
Decentralisation certainly has disadvantages. Yet these shouldn’t obscure its advantages, especially if the alternative is to make locally elected representatives subject to unelected authorities appointed by the central government, with one of their roles being to deny key aspects of local identity and culture.
The fact that FN members run as candidates to preside French regions indicates that this party may have renounced these proposals, and recognised the benefits of regionalisation and local democracy. If so, the accusations of cronyism and electoral opportunism can be easily levelled at the FN, as the change is sudden and brutal – and appears to contradict the very name of the party.
If not, this is something Marine Le Pen and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen are entirely free to prove. Should they be elected, nothing will preclude them from governing the regions according to the will of the Prefects nominated by the French government – ensuring in so doing that they don’t jeopardise national unity by taking too carefully into account the needs of those living in the regions they will lead.
Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.