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The Front National’s polling better than ever, but don’t expect a President Le Pen

Still dreaming. Reuters/Yves Herman

In the first round of France’s regional elections, the Front National (FN) polled 28% nationally and was the leading party in six of the country’s 13 electoral regions. Naturally, there followed much discussion in French political and media circles as to whether the party would, for the first time, take control of one or more of France’s regional administrations in the second round.

In the end it did not happen. In the two stronghold regions of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur, where party leader Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen were standing, neither of the Le Pens was able to build significantly on their first round scores. In the Grand Est region party co-vice-president Floriant Philippot improved his first round share by only 0.01%. In the end, the FN won control of no French region, with the centre-right winning 7, the left 5, and Corsica going to the Regional Party.

What with the terrible events in Paris in November, the Charlie Hebdo attacks back in January, the ongoing refugee crisis (notably in the Calais area) and the continued economic uncertainty surrounding the Eurozone, there was ample political fodder for Marine Le Pen and her party to exploit during this election campaign.

So on the surface, the result was disappointing for the FN – but that analysis is too straightforward.

This election proves the FN is still steadily building on the progress it has made even since before Marine Le Pen became leader in January 2011. The FN’s 6.8m second round votes amount to its highest return in any single electoral contest since its formation in 1972, beating the 6.4m votes Marine Le Pen herself won in the first round of the 2012 presidential contest.

Not so fast. Reuters/Yves Herman

The party also more than tripled its number of regional councillors across France; it now has 358 compared to 118 previously. So even though the FN did not win a single region, the party retains its strength in its traditional northern and southern strongholds, and is continuing to establish itself in hitherto unlikely areas such as Burgundy.

Evidently Marine Le Pen and her entourage’s attempts to sanitise the party are still paying electoral dividends. The party’s strategy has arguably become more nuanced over the last decade as it has attempted to reframe its traditional anti-migrant and anti-Islam discourse. This so-called process of “dédiabolisation” has included a conscious attempt to tap into historical legacies such as the republican and secular narratives.

Similarly, the FN has exploited opposition to both the EU and to globalisation as a means of moving beyond its traditional bread-and-butter anti-immigrant discourse. All of the above has helped to legitimise the party and to reinforce its durability on the French political landscape.

While the result will be personally disappointing for Marine Le Pen, the party’s steadily increasing tally of votes means that her dominance within the party is likely to remain unchallenged.

What the regional results do not imply is a change in the dynamics of the 2017 presidential election. Should Marine Le Pen be the FN’s presidential candidate, which seems highly likely, she will have a strong chance of proceeding to the second round run-off, either against incumbent Socialist President François Hollande or against a reinvented Nicolas Sarkozy (assuming these two indeed become the candidates).

However, the regional result serves as a reminder that Le Pen has little chance of becoming president in 2017. To do so, she would need to win around 18m votes (11m more than she did on December 13), thus winning a majority in a head-to-head run-off. With no FN candidate – including herself – able to pull this off in the second round of the regionals, the notion of a Le Pen presidency in 2017 remains far-fetched.

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