Front National’s victory will have a serious impact on both France and the future of Europe

Marine Le Pen has dealt a stunning blow to the French political establishment. EPA/Yoan Valat

As far as Marine Le Pen is concerned: “The people have spoken.” The leader of the Front National, which has taken 25% of the French vote in the European Parliamentary elections claims her party is now “number one” in France.

“Our people demand one type of politics,” she told jubilant supporters. “They want French politics by the French, for the French, with the French. They don’t want to be led any more from outside, to submit to laws … Tonight is a massive rejection of the European Union.”

And a ripple effect appears to have already reached the Elysée Palace. Embattled French president, Francois Hollande, called a crisis meeting of his cabinet after which he gave a televised statement in which he outlined what appears to be a major shift in attitude, saying that the EU had become “remote and incomprehensible” to many people.

“This cannot continue. Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary,” he said.

The FN has become the biggest party in France for the first time in its long history. With more than 25% of the vote, there is no doubt that Le Pen’s party is the clear winner in these elections, with other parties, moderate or radical, apparently failing to counter the “Blue Marine wave”. The FN has further demonstrated its ability to perform well in all areas of the country and its growing strength within parts of the electorate.

According to exit polls, the FN gathered 43% of the workers’ vote, 38% of employees in the service industry and 37% of the unemployed vote, reinforcing its image as the main workers’ party. It has also polled extremely well with the young – up to 30% of under-35s compared to “only” 21% of over-60s. This confirms an electoral shift accelerated under Marine Le Pen’s leadership. However, while a superficial analysis of the early electoral data certainly points to an “earthquake” in French politics, a cold-headed analysis provides a more nuanced, albeit worrying, picture.

First, it is worth repeating that European elections are second-order elections. Radical parties tend to perform better thanks to a combination of protest vote and abstention. Therefore, it is difficult to make any long-term predictions until it is clear how much of this vote represented a protest and how much was a call for more far right policies and politics. It will also be illuminating to see what the drivers behind these votes are. Indeed, a protest against an EU in serious need of democratic reform would be less dramatic than a vote based on the nativist feelings core to the FN’s ideological message.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the FN will have little power in the European Parliament as it is unlikely it will form strong enough alliances to trigger dramatic change. However, it would be wrong to assume that their performance will not have a deep political impact. If a large enough alliance is formed, this will allow the party and its allies to raise the necessary funds to step up their anti-EU campaigns. More worryingly, it will give the FN a stronger voice and legitimacy, which have proven key to its mainstreaming over the past three decades.

The FN’s success among workers and the young must also be put into perspective. As various studies have shown, the young, the poorly educated and those who consider themselves to be lowest on the social ladder are also those most likely to abstain. In 2009, 70.9% of 18-24 year-olds and 64.3% of 25-39 year-olds did not vote (compared to 50% for 55-and-overs). Similarly, 64.1% of manual workers abstained, as did 72% of the unemployed and 66.1% of students. If this weekend’s elections reflect similar figures, the FN’s consolidation of its status as the main workers’ party will appear much less impressive.

Disaster for mainstream

What is unlikely to change with new data is the poor performance of the mainstream parties. As expected, the moderate right and left will find very little solace in the results. The centre-right UMP came in second but fared poorly (20.3%). The results confirm that the FN will remain a serious contender for the right-wing vote for years to come. The Parti Socialiste’s results reflect its dismal levels of popularity. If the local elections’ warning was not clear enough, it is now beyond doubt that Hollande’s presidency will leave a devastating legacy for the moderate left in France. With no radical policy change in sight, the only hope for the PS in the 2017 presidential elections will rest with the moderate left-wing electorate casting their vote in fear of a repeat of the 2002 elections. In this case, the UMP candidate could well be the one left stranded, with a FN/PS stand-off in the second round.

At the same time, alternatives on the left have failed to gain momentum and capitalise on the disappointed socialist electorate. The Greens managed a decent 8.7%, but suffered from years of division and their alliance within the first PS government. With 6.6%, the Front de Gauche failed once more in its bid to compete with the FN – the disillusioned left-wing electorate resisted their populist appeal (only 8% of workers turned to Melenchon’s party).

With the media constantly portraying the FN as the alternative to the loathed system, the reaction of other parties will prove crucial to the fate of France and its role in the EU. Without major strategic readjustments on both the moderate left and right, it is likely we will see these parties chase the FN’s electorate. While the return of Nicolas Sarkozy could potentially bring some FN supporters to the UMP, it is unlikely the PS will gain much by playing a more right-wing card.

A more complicated strategy aimed at those who abstained could be more fruitful, as it is abstention which has become the largest “party” in France. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this is a homogeneous group, or that their alienation could be easily bridged. The deep distrust in liberal democracy that runs deep in France will take much time and effort to overcome, something which parties are no longer willing to invest. Yet it is only that democratic revival which will prevent the Front National from setting the agenda in this race to the bottom.