By Tash Shifrin | 1 April 2014
Fascists in France have taken the mayor’s post in 14 towns after the second round of the local elections on Sunday.
The same day, a national opinion poll put the fascist Front National second in the race for the European elections in May – on 22%, just behind the conservative UMP on 24% and ahead of president François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (similar to the Labour Party in Britain) with 19%.
The FN took the substantial towns of Béziers and Fréjus as well as the seventh sector of Marseille – with a population of 150,000, this is the biggest of the FN’s gains – to add to the former mining town of Hénin-Beaumont that it won on an absolute majority in the first round of the municipal elections.
The party also won the smaller towns of Mantes-la-ville, Le Pontet, Hayange, Beaucaire, Cogolin, Villers-Cotterêts and Le Luc.
Fascist splinter group the Ligue de Sud, led by FN founder member Jacques Bompart, took three more towns: Orange, where Bompart has been mayor since 1995, Bollène and the tiny Camaret-sur-Aigues.
The FN now has 1,496 local councillors – up from just 60 – with another 102 going to its far right allies.
This capture of the mayoral positions puts the FN well ahead of its previous best. It won three towns in 1995, gaining a fourth in a 1997 byelection.
Many people in France – and across Europe have been horrified by these results. In Fréjus, the announcement that the FN had won the mayor’s post was met instantly by a demonstration of angry locals chanting “Fuck the FN” outside the town hall.
The results overall show a shift of power to the right, towards the conservative UMP and away from the PS as voters reacted against Hollande’s continuation of austerity politics and cuts. The PS was particularly badly hit by the record abstention rate as angry and demoralised voters stayed at home.
There is also a degree of polarisation. In some areas, voters’ anger was expressed in a vote for candidates to the left of the PS. Major left gains included the big Paris suburb of Montreuil and the first sector of Lyon – won by the radical left Front de Gauche alliance – and Grenoble, where a member of the EELV green alliance was elected mayor on a joint list with the FdG, defeating the PS.
But the fascists’ rise is the starkest message from these elections – and it should sound a warning across Europe. The FN also fed on voters’ bitterness and anger, offering up Muslims and immigrants as scapegoats for austerity, cuts and unemployment.
Leader Marine Le Pen has sought to clean up the party’s image and present it as part of the mainstream. In this she has been helped enormously by the “respectability” of Islamophobia, immigrant bashing and attacks on ethnic minorities such as the Roma by the mainstream parties.
Occasionally the mask slips – as it did when Séverine Amelot, an FN candidate in Nevers, central France, posted pictures of herself in a room decked out with a large Nazi flag on Facebook.
The fascists’ gains – and many of its strong first-round votes – are in areas of high unemployment, in two strips in the industrial north and Mediterranean south of France. The FN has capitalised on the failure of the PS to stand up against austerity and defend workers from the ravages of the economic crisis.
Hénin-Beaumont, taken by the FN in the first round, is a former mining town with unemployment of around 19% in the northern Pas-de-Calais region of France, a region that was once a stronghold of the PCF.
In more recent years, until 2009, the town was a safe bet for the PS, but the FN came close to taking it that year when the PS mayor resigned after a corruption scandal. Two years ago FN leader Marine Le Pen was narrowly beaten in her attempt to win the area’s parliamentary seat. Now the FN holds the town.
In Hayange, the FN has seized a Moselle steel town stricken by the closure last year of the huge ArcelorMittal blast furnace after a long fight by the unions. Ahead of his own election in 2012, president Hollande had promised to stop the closure.
This pledge came to nothing, with only a the belated introduction of a law requiring firms to put plants up for sale before trying to shut them or face fines – a law later stripped of all force by the constitutional court as “a violation of property rights and entrepreneurial freedom”. The plant’s union leader has been selected to head the PS regional list in the Euro elections. Bitter voters have lost faith in the party.
The town’s new fascist mayor, Fabien Engelmann, was once a CGT union activist and member of the leftwing New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). He quit the NPA after it selected as a candidate a Muslim woman who wore the hijab, and moved swiftly to the racist far right, joining the fascist FN in 2011 and becoming a craven admirer of Le Pen. The CGT expelled him when he first stood for the FN in a local election. Now the fascist mayor plans to tackle poverty by distributing food stamps with “priority to the French.”
But the FN failed to take some key target towns. In Saint-Gilles one of the FN’s MPs, Gilbert Collard, failed to take mayor’s post, despite a very high first-round vote. Louis Aliot, a party vice president and Le Pen’s partner lost out in Perpignan and another vice president, Florian Philippot, lost in Forbach.
It is important to note that despite its gains, the fascists’ strength in the town halls does not yet match that of the radical left. Compared with the fascists’ 14 mayors, the Front de Gauche – including the Communist PCF – holds 56. The radical left won 2,822 council seats compared with 1,598 for the FN and its far right allies.
But the FN took a higher average vote in the towns where it stood – with 15.29% compared to 10.71% for the radical left. In the 214 towns where both the FN and the radical left put up an electoral list, the FN came out ahead in 177.
The key worry is the rising trajectory of the FN over the past few years. Its local election results are a dramatic improvement on the previous municipal poll in 2008, when it took no town halls and obtained just 60 councillors.
This follows Marine Le Pen’s record showing in the 2012 presidential elections, when she took 17.9% of the vote in the first round – higher even than the 16.9% vote for her father FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 when he got through to the second round. And Marine’s vote in real numbers was far higher – with 6.4 million votes compared with 4.8 million in 2002.
At the parliamentary elections later in 2012, the FN gained two MPs – Marine’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and Gilbert Collard – while long-time FN member Jacques Bompard took a seat for splinter group the Ligue du Sud (Southern League).
This was not just an improvement on the previous parliamentary poll – these were the first fascists to win seats in the French legislature for 25 years. Two more FN candidates lost narrowly with 49% of the poll and the FN came close to taking another parliamentary seat in a byelection last year.
So we can see a continuing sharp rise in the FN’s fortunes.
It is a mistake to downplay this on the grounds that the FN fielded fewer candidates or took fewer votes than the mainstream PS and UMP. This is to be expected for a far smaller organisation.
Nor should the FN’s vote be seen as a “stabilisation” of its position – an analysis some have put forward by comparing the votes between these local elections and the parliamentary vote in 2012. In general there are problems comparing local and parliamentary election results because party strategies and people’s voting patterns often vary in different types of election.
The FN’s gains this week are significant because they show the continuing surge of support for the fascist party, and the success of Marine Le Pen’s strategy of making the FN “respectable” the mainstream of politics.
Success in the local elections gives the FN the ideal platform to build its campaign for the European elections in May – a much more important prize for the fascists. That election will be on proportional representation, making it easier for the FN to take seats.
Europe is the main target for the FN this year – and it is already in second place in the polls.
Hollande’s first response to the elections has been an attempt to placate the racists and the right with the appointment of Manuel Valls, the former interior minister who last year called for Roma people to be “expelled” from France, and who has overseen the demolition of Roma camps.
What is desperately needed is a broad-based movement that clearly labels the FN as fascist and mobilises the widest possible number of people against it.
Last summer, there was a wave of spontaneous demonstrations across France in response to the murder by hardcore fascist streetfighters of teenaged antifascist Clément Méric. The government responded by banning the nazi group Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires.
It has been clear for some time that the FN has maintained links with the violent street groups – leftwing activists were reporting attacks by street fascists in 2012 at the time of the presidential elections, and continuing links are repeatedly exposed.
Mass anti-fascist activity now needs to be targeted clearly at the FN – its successes can only encourage fascists at the polls and on the streets across Europe.