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.
On top of these socio-economic factors, the National Front itself has done a tremendous job of recruiting new, respectable candidates, of canvassing the electorate on the ground, and of adroitly channeling the distrust and dissatisfaction felt by so many. The party has also played down its ideological extremism in favor of down-to-earth city management measures, from filling in potholes to fixing city lamps. Far from running on polarizing agendas, its candidates have “played nice,” posing as prudent managers of cities in disarray rather than revolutionaries. Marine Le Pen herself made it very clear that her candidates would not try to implement at the local level her national platform of “national preference,” a set of anti-immigrants discriminatory measures that would cut social and health services to immigrants (this would have been illegal anyway, but this is what the National Front tried to do when it conquered three cities in the south of France in 1995). By adopting a low profile at the local level, she hopes to build a bond with a wider base of voters and sneak in her more poisonous ideas later on once trust on less controversial, day-to-day issues has been established.
A few weeks ago, we explained how Marine Le Pen was in the process of winning over France’s public opinion, thanks to her sharp political acumen and a careful media strategy. Now she has the popular vote to attest that her party has truly become a serious, credible alternative for an increasing number of citizens. What is worrisome is that more elections are to come.
Some point that the National Front is “just” back to its 1995 levels, when it won the three southern towns of Toulon, Marignan and Orange, followed by Vitrolles in 1997. That alone would be cause for concern. But this time around, the National Front has launched a much more comprehensive national campaign: it canvassed the whole territory systematically, including towns that had been until now reluctant to cast their vote in its favor. To put this into context, when he was head of the National Front until 2011, Jean-Marie Le Pen focused his attention on national elections only: he showed no interest in local elections. After the 1998 secession from his second-in-chief Bruno Mégret, he even consciously avoided creating local strongholds, fearing competition from would-be rivals. On election night last Sunday, Marine Le Pen was right to assert that the National Front “is now a great, independent political force not only nationally, but also locally.”
This is an important first step in a much more far-reaching strategy to rise to power. Sylvain Crépon, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Nanterre who has covered the National Front on the ground since 1995, particularly in Hénin-Beaumont, explained it to me this way: “A number of staff members of the National Front admitted, on condition of anonymity, that they feared to take over too many cities because they lack a cadre of competent personnel to manage them efficiently. This is why the National Front wants to invest massively into municipal counselors so that they can learn on the job and become local nobilities. Then [the party] will capitalize on this new political personnel with strong local ties for the upcoming elections. The strategy is essentially mid- and long-term.”
Marine Le Pen is counting on a snowball effect that would push her to the top in the upcoming European Elections, then the elections to the Senate, and the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2017. Short of a long overdue wake up call, she is well positioned to surprise us a few more times.