The populist, anti-immigrant Front National triumphed in the first round of regional elections in France yesterday, coming in first in six out of the country’s 13 regions and winning 28 percent of the vote nationally. The center-Right Républicains came in second with 26.9 percent of the vote, finishing first in only four regions. The Socialists, who had held all but one of the regions, came in first in only three, with 23.3 percent of the vote. Marine Le Pen, the FN’s leader, won a crushing 40 percent of the vote in her race, and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, captured more than 40 percent in her region.
Marine Le Pen’s race is particularly interesting: In winning Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, she captured a historic stronghold of the socialist Left, while also putting herself on the path to govern the region with one of France’s most acute migrant problems. At the port of Calais, thousands of refugees and migrants huddle in a makeshift camp called “the Jungle,” trying to sneak into England—even returning after French attempts to relocate them. This situation, unsurprisingly, has led to exacerbated tensions between locals and the migrants.
Le Pen’s victory in the heartland of the Left, however, is less surprising than one might think based on the “far-Right” label usually applied to the party. The FN has always been protectionist and socialist (really, how could one be a French nationalist in this day and age and not be?), and has recently gone out of its way to present itself as the savior of the French economic model. And to say that Le Pen’s victory is “interesting” is not the same as “good.” The FN remains a party with an ugly history of anti-Semitism that espouses anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views and embraces Putin. Historically, France’s centrist parties have counted on exactly that ugliness to push voters towards them, betting that on the second round of ballots (which in this case come next week) voters would gravitate to whichever of them remained as the only acceptable alternative to the FN.
And indeed, the old impulse is still alive: The Socialists had called for the formation of a united bloc with Les Républicains ahead of the election. While Les Républicains leader Nicolas Sarkozy rejected the proposal, the Socialists announced that they were pulling several of their candidates from the second round of voting in hopes of limiting the FN’s gains, and several Les Républicains leaders endorsed the strategy: “When you are third, you pull out,” as ex-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin put it.
But it may not work this time. Projections show the FN still winning at least four regions come next week, and that’s not surprising. The FN was already doing well before the Paris attacks, its surge fueled by the centrists’ steadfast refusal to address issues, starting with immigration, that the public cared about. Throw in a massive security failure and a “stay the course” message on immigration post-Paris, and it may well be enough to break through historic firewalls. Whether that will happen remains to be seen next week.