PARIS — Last month came the terror of jihadists in the City of Light, this month came the shock of huge electoral advances by the far-right National Front. Indeed, as the French awoke on Monday morning, “Le Choc” was a banner headline. And the impact of the Friday the 13th massacre of 130 people surely helped propel the erstwhile extremist party to new heights in the first round of regional elections on Dec. 6.
But the French had very little reason to be surprised, much less shocked about that result. National Front leader Marine Le Pen has been watching and waiting for a monster wave of popular emotions for a long time. When it came, with the flood of refugees this fall and then the Paris attacks, she was more than ready to take advantage. And it’s her organization and its ability to exploit the growing sense of chaos in Europe that really scares the political establishment here.
Le Pen speaks for a growing constituency, people who think they are fed up with the European Union, and she says she wants to “explode” it. People are scared for their jobs, and even scared for their lives.
Le Pen claims her party is no longer a refuge for racists and anti-Semites, but she hits a chord with those who are (and, it must be said, those who are not) when she says France simply cannot accommodate the masses of immigrants flowing across its largely open borders.
Her “France for the French” discourse is especially attractive in areas where there is very high unemployment, and those areas are many. French President François Hollande, despite years of promises, has failed to change that.
These regional governments do not have any legislative power, but they administer programs ranging from economic development to transportation and education. Their budgets are in the billions, and, of course, that means they can be used for patronage and to build up a political machine.
Polls had predicted for weeks that the National Front might win three of the 13 regional governments in the country in the second round of voting, which takes place next Sunday. And the first round gave Le Pen’s party a commanding lead, in fact, in six regions, out-distancing candidates from Les Républicains, the recently renamed right-wing party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the Socialists of current President François Hollande running a feeble third.
Altogether, Le Pen’s party got almost 30 percent of the vote nationwide, with Sarkozy’s coalition three points behind and Hollande’s Socialists more than six points back in the field.
With those kinds of numbers, it escaped nobody’s notice that if this were the first multi-party round of the presidential elections 18 months from now, such results would have qualified Marine Le Pen for the run-off that decides the next occupant of the Élysée Palace.
And there is about that prospect, to be sure, a certain sense of déjà vu.
In 2002, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front, managed to win a place in the run-off against incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Then, too, mainstream papers in France ran the headline “Le Choc” across their front pages. And the French turned out en masse to vote against old man Le Pen, stunned that their thoughtless protest votes in the first round had brought the incendiary old curmudgeon into the sudden-death contest of the second. As presidential timber, Jean-Marie Le Pen was a rotten log, and he fell with a thud.
But Marine Le Pen, who took over the party five years ago, and has since forced her father out, learned many lessons from his mistakes. One test of her staying power now will be whether voters on the left and right unite against her next week as they did against her father in 2002. Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have opened the door to that possibility in the regions where the Front is strongest, but Sarkozy’s party has ruled out any alliance, perhaps in the knowledge it’s futile.
Her main rival on the right, Sarkozy, tried to outflank her by taking what seemed in French terms radical positions. In these elections, Sarkozy thought he could win over Marine Le Pen voters as he had won over Jean-Marie’s after 2002, preaching law and order and security. But five years of Sarkozy’s mediocre presidency and his erratic personal behavior have turned voters off.
Meanwhile Marine Le Pen edged a little toward the center. The effect was to make Sarkozy look like an extremist or, worse still, a phony extremist.
The French tabloid Le Parisien sketched a singularly unflattering but accurate portrait of Sarkozy, the ex-head of state, conceding the losses of his party: “It was enough to see his pale face, his drawn features, and his voice full of contained anger… to realize the extent of his disappointment.”