Well, that’s OK then. The second round of France’s regional elections has seen the clear winner of the first, Marine Le Pen and her Front National, leave empty-handed. The FN, top in six of the 13 regions on December 6, won none. It came third in the overall poll on 27.4% compared with 40% for the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) and 32% for the incumbent socialists (PS). Worse still for Mme Le Pen, both she and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, well ahead first time in their fiefdoms, Nord-Pas-De-Calais and Provence, fell back badly in the second round run-offs with “just” 42% and 45% respectively.
The two most visible leaders of the Far Right lost because the PS withdrew in both their regions to enable the LR to win – in a “republican front” based upon the enduring secular values of France. And, of course, this triumph of “republican values” can lead many to believe that the FN will never secure power. That MLP, even if, like her now disgraced father, Jean-Marie, in 2002, she gets into the second round of the 2017 presidential elections, she can’t and won’t win. Enough French voters will “hold their nose” – as they did with Jacques Chirac 13 years ago – and vote massively for the anti-FN candidate they excoriated in the first round. MLP is incapable of forming a broad enough front to win power, it’s said, because her brand remains toxic.
This blandly reassuring scenario has some grounding in reality. Certainly, Xavier Bertrand, the winner over MLP and ex-labour minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, took care to thank left-wing voters for aiding his success. Then, Sarkozy, who has taken LR to the right to cut the ground under MLP’s feet and guarantee his return to the Elysée in 2017, saw his “ni ni” (abstain) tactic roundly ignored. Many of his party’s supporters also voted left tactically in a bigger turnout than usual. And it is genuinely heart-warming in a Europe drifting into the arms of authoritarian xenophobes and Islamophobes to see a halt called in one of its biggest countries. MLP’s strategy of “de-demonising” the FN, to the point of throwing out her Dad, the party’s founder, in an effort to make it “normal” and hence respectable, has failed.
But she won a record 6.8m votes for her party and a record share of the vote – up more than 2% on the European elections of 2014. And this was even though her political response to the Paris attacks was ultra-nationalist and nakedly anti-Muslim – a crude denial of “republican values.” What’s more, the FN is tapping into a widespread French national depression at its economic decline – record unemployment of 3.6m – and German supremacy in Europe. There is, as elsewhere, profound alienation from globalization, mounting inequality and, not least, the political class’s accommodation – on centre-left as well as centre-right – with both. MLP is more successful at mining resentments among (white) working-class voters and winning them over, often from the Communists, than, say, Ukip or AfD.
Inevitably, MLP did not look that depressed herself on Sunday night as she reasserted the FN (and herself) as “alone against everybody else” (seul(e) contre tous) and tore into the cosy collusion between mainstream right and left – aided and abetted by the media – that had denied her victory. If France’s economic malaise continues to deepen – and the feelgood factor engendered by the stunning diplomatic success of the COP21 climate change summit rapidly evaporates as it will – then the FN retains a rich seam of actual and potential support. Simply put, it’s 40 years since the “glorious 30” years of post-war renaissance ended and there’s little to show in terms of progress. France is stuck in its “nostalgie de la boue.”
Fortunately, this inability to handle and overcome economic and social tensions has been recognised in the wake of Sunday’s results. These have been seen as a wake-up call. Bertrand, a wannabe LR presidential candidate, said plainly that the political class was drinking in the last chance saloon after 30 wasted years. Manuel Valls, reform-minded but ineffective premier, said: “The danger of the far right has not been removed – far from it – and I won’t forget the results of the first round and of past elections.” Francois Fillon, ex-premier under Sarkozy, said the first round gave the real sentiments of French voters. Valls made the obvious point: “We have to give people back the desire to vote for and not just against.”
This, surely, is the true lesson of the French regional elections and one that applies right across Europe – above all, for the social democratic left. Many signals point to the danger of renewed recession. The refugee crisis is far from over and could accentuate post-winter. Nationalist and extremist positions are becoming entrenched, even in the sunny uplands of “perennially” social democratic Scandinavia. The EU itself is at serious risk of disintegration in the face of growing sentiments against solidarity. This old continent, as it approaches a new year, is in sore need of real change – not talk of reforms but real measures that help restore some trust in both democratic institutions and the economy. Until that happens, it will not be OK.