It was a relief that the fascist Front National failed to take control of any of France’s regions after the second round of elections on Sunday. But that relief should not last too long. The BBC said the FN was “routed” in the election – but in reality it was no such thing: although it didn’t take a region, these elections have been a triumph for the fascist party.
They represent a new highpoint, continuing the FN’s three-year surge. The FN is Europe’s most successful – and most dangerous – electoral fascist party. This is the real emergency in France.
And still the FN’s rise is unimpeded by any serious national antifascist campaign. How many warning sirens do we need to hear?
“Election after election, the rise of the nationalist current is inexorable,” Le Pen gloated. “Nothing can stop us.”
As things stand, that is no idle threat – it is a challenge that must be taken up.
The conservative centre-right bloc won the election overall with 40.24% of the vote and control of seven regions to the centre-left’s 28.86% and five regions. The thirteenth region, Corsica, was won by a Corsican autonomist-independence coalition.
But amid a general shift to the right, it was the FN and its surge that dominated the election, the fascists’ gains that were the starkest and most dramatic.
Marine Le Pen’s FN took more than 6.8m votes nationally in Sunday’s second round – a record that beats even the 6.4m Le Pen gained in the 2012 presidential elections (which traditionally have a much higher turnout than the regional polls). The party managed to add around 800,000 votes to the 6m it gained in the first round.
Its percentage votes are also its highest ever: 27.7% in the first round and 27.1% in the second round, up on the 24.86% it scored in last year’s European elections.
Compared with the last regional elections in 2010, the rise is even more shocking. Then the FN won 2.2m votes (11.4%) in the first round and 1.9m (9.2%) in the second.
This time, the party topped the poll nationally in the first round – it is now the most popular party in France – and came first in six regions.
After the second round, it has tripled its council seats in the regional tier of government. The FN won’t be smarting too long at its failure to negotiate the difficulties of the two-round run-off electoral system.
Despite an increased turnout in the second round – with many voters coming out to vote against the fascists – and the withdrawal of centre-left Parti Socialiste candidates in the two key regions of Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie (NPDCP) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), the FN still came close in its two main target areas.
In the industrial northern NPDCP region, Marine Le Pen took 42.23% in the second round, while in the southern PACA her even more hardline niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen took 45.22%. These are astonishingly high votes for fascist candidates.
The FN won between 30% and 36% of the vote in four other regions. It is also in second place as the official opposition in four regions.
In the southern département of Vaucluse, where Marion Marechal-Le Pen is one of the MPs, the FN won an overall majority with more than 51% in the second round – a first for the FN.
The three-year surge
The timing of these elections was handy for the FN, amid an Islamophobic backlash after the horrific attacks in Paris and the national state of emergency. But that is not what has brought the party such success – these gains are the latest in a surge for the fascist party that has continued over the past three years, with Le Pen now targeting the 2017 presidential elections.
The chart below shows the FN’s election results since it first made an impact on the political scene in the 1980s. We can see the continuing presence of the FN since the 1980s – it has never been comprehensively defeated, it has never gone away.
The results are not all directly comparable due to changes in the voting system and differences between elections for the various tiers of government, but the surge over the past three years is unmistakable.
What has happened? First there is a phenomenon we have seen across Europe as voters have turned against the traditional centre-left or centre-right parties that have supported austerity regimes.
The diagram below shows the first-round percentage vote for the past three regional elections. We can see how in 2004, the centre parties dominated the vote. Between them, the conservative UMP (now Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains) which took 33.7%, and the centre-left Parti Socialiste on 36.9%, accounted for more than 70% of the total vote.
By 2010, two years after the 2008 economic crisis, the picture has polarised. Now the two main centre parties account for only 49.5% of the total – just short of half.
As we have seen across Europe, this polarisation can be pulled either to the left, as in Greece, or to the right, as in Hungary. In the French regional elections of 2010, the FN vote dropped a bit, while the parties to the left of the PS strongly increased their support.
This year, the picture has changed dramatically. Now the centre parties have very similar percentages to last time round (accounting for a total of 49.8%) but the polarisation has pulled sharply towards the fascist far right, with the FN’s vote soaring.
In grim contrast, support for the parties of the left – the traditional left of the Communist Party, the radical left and the greens – have declined sharply.
We can’t tell from this exactly how voters have shifted between parties. Some may have moved “one step to the right”, from the radical left or greens to the PS, from the PS to the conservatives and from them to the fascists.
But it is also likely that some have switched directly from expressing their anger at the mainstream parties of austerity with a leftwing vote to expressing it with a vote for the FN and its racist, scapegoating platform. The FN has made many of its gains in the neglected northern industrial regions that used to be a stronghold of the Communists (see more detail here).
And our analysis of who voted for the FN in last year’s Euro elections shows how the FN is dominant among groups who are also the main constituency of the radical and centre left – blue collar and white collar workers, the lowest-paid, unemployed people and young people.
With the left unable to provide a credible alternative to unending austerity, the FN has been the main beneficiary of the economic and political crisis.
The surge begins
Since 2011 when Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN has made substantial gains at every election. In 2012, she won a record 17.9% in the presidential election. The same year, the FN gained two MPs in the parliamentary poll – the party’s first since the 1990s.
In last year’s local elections the FN gained a base in the town halls, winning 14 elected mayors in a targeted campaign. The effects of having a fascist mayor are now becoming clearer: in Béziers, in the south of France, mayor Robert Méynard is setting up a uniformed militia of former soldiers and police to patrol the streets. He has also ruled against any new kebab shops and instituted a curfew on young people.
Then came another record vote in the Euro elections. And there were more gains in this year’s election for France’s departements. The FN took 62 département council seats, with another four for the Ligue du Sud, a splinter group.
The planned culmination of this campaign is the 2017 presidential election. And even before this week’s results, recent opinion polls have put Le Pen in the lead for the presidential race, ahead of both LR and the PS.
Austerity and racism
How has the FN made such headway? Fascist and far right racist populist parties across Europe have fed on bitterness and anger against austerity, poverty and unemployment, turning it in a racist direction. The FN is part of this wider trend.
Its rise began against the backdrop of conservative president Sarkozy’s austerity regime. In 2012, in her first presidential race Le Pen gave an early indication of the FN’s new potential, with a record 17.9% vote.
But it was François Hollande of the centre-left PS who won the presidency. His betrayal of ordinary workers’ hopes as he continued down the road of austerity that stoked the bitterness and disillusionment further.
Marine Le Pen took over the FN already set on a project she calls “de-demonisation” – presenting a slick, “respectable” public image and editing out overt signs of fascism such as her father’s repeated Holocaust denials. She wants to present the party as a mainstream option, with its fascist origins and true politics well hidden.
This has been a successful strategy: the FN can present itself as part of the mainstream these days – helped by the increasing currency of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Roma racism among mainstream politicians in France and across Europe.
Islamophobia is a cornerstone of the FN’s public appeal to voters. As the poster below shows, the racist message is explicit. “Choose your neighbourhood,” it urges. A vote for the FN will make your neighbourhood lovely and white – otherwise, it’s the scary Muslims…
Both the UMP/LR and, in its turn, the PS have given Islamophobia respectable cover, making concessions to the FN’s agenda, and increasing the fascists’ credibility.
Shamefully, sections of the French left have not been immune to Islamophobia themselves – and the left as a whole has failed to confront the main form of racism in France. While the beleaguered Muslim community suffers and divisions grow inside the working class, the FN gains from every concession to Islamophobia.
The FN is gaining support primarily from poor working class voters, whose bitterness against austerity is diverted into Islamophobic and anti-immigrant racism. If you want to address the rise of the FN, you can’t ignore that racism.
Finally, the FN has never faced a large-scale systematic and sustained challenge from anti-fascists. Instead it has been allowed to rise and rise unchecked. The need for a serious national campaign directed specifically against the fascists is urgent.
We should remember that the majority of people in France do not back the FN. It gained the votes of 15% – around one in seven – of all those registered to vote.
There is the potential to mobilise a majority against the fascists. But we cannot afford to wait for another warning siren: these elections show that in France now, the fascists’ rise is the most immediate and the greatest threat.
>> Guest post from France: on building a united fight against the fascists (written after the European elections)