French regional elections: populist parties gain ground across Europe

Article published on Dec. 13, 2015
Article published on Dec. 13, 2015

For a long time, France's political landscape has been dominated by the Republicans (formerly the UMP) and the Socialist party, but all that's about to change. The economic crisis, rising unemployment and the terrorist threat have all played into the hands of the Front National, which has used the country's widespread discontentment as an opportunity to step forward.

Last week, the French people cast their first round of votes to elect their regional representatives for the next six years. To no great surprise, the Front National (FN) – the far-right party led by Marine le Pen – came top in six of the country's 13 régions, with historic results that saw the party take around 28% of the national vote. Les Républicains (LR), led by Nicolas Sarkozy, won 26.7% of votes, while François Hollande's Parti Socialiste (PS) took 23.1%. The regions where the far right came out on top include Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy, which has been a crossing point towards the UK for many refugees; the FN won 40.64% of the vote there, compared with just 24.96% for Republican candidate Xavier Bertrand and 18.12% for Socialist Pierre de Saintignon. The second round of votes are taking place today, with all parties that received at least 10% of votes eligible to compete once more in the electoral race. 

What do these elections represent for France?

In practical terms, the purpose of these particular elections is to select regional representatives who will oversee areas like tourism and regional development. Speaking about the region of Calais, Marine Le Pen recently stated in a radio interview that it isn't at all the "role of regions to simply pay for mosquito nets for prisoners in Senegal in the fight against malaria". Le Pen went on to say that autistic children and people with serious illnesses in Calais are forced to go to Belgium for treatment, due to the lack of facilities in their own region.

Symbolically, these elections show the "Front National effect" that could spread "thanks" to their populist propaganda. Le Pen victimises the French people by making them believe that they need to be saved by a strong State. She recently said on the France 3 TV channel: "When it comes to procurement contracts, I believe that a region must be able to prioritise local businesses and local employment." She's also made her divisive views on immigration known through Twitter – for example, "We have 9 million poor people in France, including 1 million in our region, who think they should have priority" and, "I'll reinstate our national borders and stop funding the welcoming of migrants."

According to demographer Hervé Le Bras, the Front National has succeeded in strengthening its foothold in the regions where it had already received a considerable number of votes in March 2014's European elections. Le Pen says, "This vote confirms what previous polls predicted and official observers don't want to admit: from now on, the Front National is unambiguously France's first party." While public support for her party is gaining momentum, Le Pen's statement has sparked fears for the worst – namely, that the upcoming presidential elections in 2017 could see victory for this extreme right-winger who has promised to change France, starting with treaty renegotiation, in order to break away from the European construct and reinstate the primacy of national law over European law.

There are no indications yet that Le Pen will win France's 2017 presidential elections, as highlighted by political analyst François Beaudonnet following the European election results in 2014. However, the Financial Times believes an FN victory is possible and represents a threat for France's future. Blame is laid at both ends of the political spectrum, with Sarkozy's Republicans and Hollande's Socialists accusing each other of having let the far right rise. Sarkozy has already guaranteed that a debate will follow the second round of the regional elections, with the future Republic line at stake. Hollande and Sarkozy must be able to show the French people that it's possible to have a prosperous society, capable of resolving problems such as security and employment, without lapsing into extremism.

The European context

The current social situation in France and Europe more widely has effectively allowed the far right to gain power by using the economic crisis, rising unemployment and the terrorist threat as instruments with which to persuade voters. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has made no bones about his wish – which he shares with Le Pen – to either leave the European Union or at the least, renegotiate the treaties.

It's hard to deny that a large part of the European population is now eurosceptic. With a considerable proportion of the British population in favour of leaving the EU, Cameron's victory this year in the UK general election is symptomatic of a trend that's spreading across Europe. The 2014 European elections pointed to a wave of populism threatening Europe through the rise of the far right. In France, 25% of votes cast were for eurosceptic parties, while the figures were 27% in the UK, 26.5% in Denmark, 20% in Italy and Austria, and 15% in Hungary. 

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This article was written by the cafébabel Brussels team.