Sunday night, France was shocked—yet again—by appalling polling numbers: voters had been called to cast their ballot throughout the country for the first round of the nation-wide municipal elections, and their response screamed distrust, distress and disunion. First came the bad news: the turnout had reached a historical low of 63.5 percent—a number unheard off in France when it comes to electing mayors and municipal counselors, the last political figures whom French people seem to still trust. Then came the ugly news: Marine Le Pen’s party, the far-right National Front, had come in first in seventeen cities of over 10,000 inhabitants, leading the race with an impressive 45 percent of the votes in Béziers (a town formerly known for being the birth place of Resistant fighter Jean Moulin), 42.5 percent in Saint-Gilles, 40 percent in Fréjus, 39 percent in Tarascon, 34 percent in Perpignan (a city of 120,000) and 29 percent in Avignon.
Moreover, the National Front managed to win from the onset the symbolic city of Hénin-Beaumont, a mining town in the north that had been faithfully communist, then socialist for over sixty years: 41-year old Steeve Briois, himself the son of a miner with over twenty years of political activism on the ground under his belt, got elected in the first round with 50.2 percent of the votes, topping the score of his chef Marine Le Pen in the last Presidential elections by fifteen points. And then there are the 323 cities where the National Front scored high enough to remain on the ballot for the second round of the elections next Sunday: on average, it scored 18 percent in these cities, becoming if not the actual winner, at least the king-maker. There is little doubt that come the results next Sunday, the National Front will have fulfilled its bet to get over a thousand municipal counselors, plus a few cities as cherry on the cake.
One wonders what is more bewildering: that in spite of numerous warning signs the Socialist Party and the Hollande administration seemed surprised by the rise of the far right and their own demise, or that Marine Le Pen managed to implement from A to Z the political strategy she had publicly announced more than a year ago without encountering any push back? Instead of crying wolf and waving the red flag of fascism (to which the National Front cannot be seriously compared), it is vital to understand what motivates those who voted National Front and to address the sometimes legitimate concerns they have thus expressed.
A number of factors can help explain the National Front’s breakthrough. These being municipal elections, some are local factors: the far right party scores the highest in towns with unemployment above the already high national rate of 11 percent (for instance Hénin-Beaumont, with an unemployment rate of almost 18 percent; or Béziers, with 16.8 percent unemployment) and in cities plagued by corruption (Hénin-Beaumont’s former mayor, Dalongeville, was indicted with embezzlement; Fréjus’ Elie Brun ran for reelection in spite of having been found guilty of illegal conflicts of interest). The southeast of France, which vividly experienced the aftermath of decolonization when repatriated Algerians settled in, has a long history of leaning towards the National Front. But there are also national factors: people voted to send a punishing message to the government. President Hollande ran in 2012 on the slogan “Change is Now.” Nothing came. “Now is the time to change elected officials,” voters seem to have replied.