In France’s regional elections the rightwing Front National has emerged as the clear winner. Winning 28 percent of the vote, it lies ahead of President Francois Hollande’s Socialists (23 percent) and former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Conservatives (27 percent).
In most regions there will now be final ballots with the the two strongest candidates competing for a clear majority. Many believe that this unprecedented situation, that threatens to unhinge France’s electoral system, calls for a cooperation of the two establishment parties to fight back the Front.
During the election campaign FN candidate Marine Le Pen had presented herself as the candidate to protect Europe from unwanted Islamic influence. After the attacks on Paris by Muslim extremists, her popularity had risen to new highs and she was able to carry the momentum into the elections. Although President Holland’s popularity also rose after the attack, he had to conced a crushing defeat.
For Le Pen the regional elections are cause for celebration. She has now managed to maneuver a firmly right wing party into the centre of French politics. Her next aim will be the presidency.
When Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, managed to unify the numerous right-extremist forces and merge their ideological differences under the newly formed FN, he did more than just reshape the conservative populist wing of French nationalism. The parachutist of the 1950s inevitably shaped the future of France’s political terrain in the 21st century.
His successor in the leadership of the party, Le Pen’s daughter Marine, was aware of this as she took over in 2011. However, she also immediately acknowledged the need for changes. Thus, the FN saw itself undergoing significant image improvement in order to advance further and regain its political prominence after a short decline in the late 2000s. The elimination of racist elements of the party’s rhetoric has been put at the epicentre of this reorientation strategy. However, quite often Le Pen has had to face the voices of her very familiar past, the ones she struggled to muzzle. Recently she again had to contradict her father’s ideas as the latter repeated his assertion that “gas chambers were a detail of World War II”, a statement that has earned him convictions over the last 28 years.
Despite the profoundly xenophobic and racist character comprising the FN’s core ideology, this anti-immigration Eurosceptic party still appeals to a large part of the French populace. Those being directly affected by economic turbulence are especially likely to perceive the European integration process as a threat and are keen to support Le Pen’s Eurosceptic positions. This is not merely because a supposed mismanagement of the current financial crisis by the EU seems to be a major factor. A retreat to national identities in France is being reinforced as Germany’s dominant role in the Eurozone appears to neglect the aspirations of its neighbours in the west, and the renowned Franco-German friendship strains under the massive weight of fiscal consolidation rules.
It appears that France is now a three party system. The consequences could be severe for the stability of the the European Union as a whole.