French regional elections: no-one can dismiss Le Pen as an also-ran now

Taking it in her stride. EPA

Marine Le Pen probably won’t be the next president of France, but the regional elections are proving that her Front National has truly become a major player.

Le Pen’s party has taken 28% of the vote in the first of two rounds to elect regional assemblies. The right-wing Republicans, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, came a close second, with a shade under 27%. The ruling Socialist Party trailed, with just 23% of the vote.

There is one week to go until the decisive second round, but even if the left and right somehow manage to block their path, the FN has already struck a major blow ahead of the presidential election in 2017.

It is a crushing blow for the ruling Socialists and bad news for Sarkozy and the Republicans, too.

A bad day for Hollande

The FN finished in first place in six mainland regions, including Le Pen’s own region, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, in the north of France. Its most spectacular performance was in its old heartland of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), where Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen took 41% of the vote and trounced arch-Sarkozyste and mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi in the process.

Rising star, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

But these elections have hardly been about the regions at all. They became a pre-presidential plebiscite by proxy as soon as Le Pen decided to stand. Until now she has had to rely on success in European elections to provide an electoral base. Now she has the chance to run a region for just over a year in preparation for the presidential elections in April and May 2017.

Sarkozy’s re-entry into the political arena only added to the sense that this contest was one final chance to establish who is the real leader of the opposition.

Who are you voting for in round two François? EPA/Jean-Pierre Muller

Le Pen’s campaign has focused on security and the threat to the secular republic. There has been more than a hint of an I-told-you-so attitude since the attacks in Paris on November 13.

She has also kept the Socialist administration’s economic failures at the fore and blended into the mix a subtle undercurrent of anti-abortion and anti-family planning discourse, as well as aiming to exploit opposition to same-sex marriage to win votes.

During the last regional elections, the Socialists took control of 21 out of 22 regional assemblies off the back of a tide of anti-Sarkozy feeling. François Hollande then went on to take the national presidency in 2012.

Since then, though, the left has been routed at every turn. The Republicans (formerly known as the UMP) and their centrist allies in the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants have staged a recovery but, most spectacularly, the FN has been resurrected from irritating also-ran (winning 11% of the national vote in 2010) to the main contender.

On to the next round

Looking at a map of the regions, France currently is ‘bleu-marine’ in the north and in ‘le Grand Est’ (Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine), where Le Pen’s right-hand man Florian Philippot has 35% of the votes. The FN is also leading in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and in the Centre-Val de Loire. And along south-western Mediterranean coast, the FN is also in pole position in the Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées where Le Pen’s partner, Louis Aliot leads the FN list (cosy, non?). However, this region may be taken by the Socialists in the second round.

The Republicans lead in four regions, including Ile-de-France (the Paris region), where former minister Valérie Pécresse took 31% of the vote, 6% ahead of Claude Bartolone, the Socialist speaker of the National Assembly.

For their part, the Socialists are comfortably placed in Bretagne and the ‘Grand Sud-Ouest’. Their more optimistic electoral analysts think they could take up to seven regions in the second round, but four seems more likely and in either case, they have performed poorly. Hollande’s sudden and unprecedented leap in the opinion pools, following the 13 November, has had no discernible impact on the stump.

What strategy then, for the right and the Socialists before next Sunday? Sarkozy has insisted that the right will not withdraw its lists and has appealed to FN supporters to vote for his party in the second round. It’s an approach that is not without its risks. In 2012, many felt Sarkozy lost sympathy in the soft centre by toughening his position on immigration and security in the second round of the presidential election to appeal to the far right.

And within the right, the results have been a deep disappointment after a good performance in March, causing some to ask whether Sarkozy really is the man for 2017.

On the left, there is confusion. The Socialists have withdrawn from the contest against Le Pen and Maréchal-Le Pen, and will ask their voters to back the Republicans and block the FN. In the Grand Est, however, the head of the PS list is, for now at least, refusing to stand down, despite party pressure.

Le Pen, as you would expect, already has her arguments ready. If she does not gain a majority in her own regional assembly, it will be due to a rigged system. Totting up the first-round votes for her opponents leaves the outcome of the second on a knife-edge.

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