The fascist Front National has made the headlines with substantial and worrying gains after the first round of voting in France’s local elections, with one mayor’s seat already in the bag.
These elections saw a backlash against the Parti Socialiste of president François Hollande – the equivalent of the Labour Party in Britain – with a shift of the centre ground towards the conservative UMP.
The PS took around 43% of the vote, with the UMP on around 48% across the 36,000 local councils. This is a reverse of the leftwards shift shown in the last municipal elections in 2008, when UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy was in power, and reflects discontent at Hollande’s dedication to continuing austerity politics.
The fascists have also fed on this discontent, scapegoating Muslims and immigrants in particular for economic crisis, unemployment and cuts.
Despite splits on the radical left, it too saw some success at the polls, pointing to a degree of polarisation in French politics.
But the FN’s success is the key development to emerge from the first round poll. This is Europe’s most successful electoral fascist party in the size of its vote – with 17.9% for its leader Marine Le Pen in the 2012 presidential elections – and every step forward it achieves boosts the fascists and the far right everywhere, especially in the run-up to the European elections in May.
FN candidate Steeve Briois was elected mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in the northern Pas-de-Calais region of France with an outright majority of 50.26% of the first round vote. And the FN looks set to gain more mayors in the second round of voting on 30 March.
Hénin-Beaumont is the town where FN leader Marine Le Pen came within 118 votes of becoming the local MP in 2012, beaten by the smallest of margins by the PS candidate.
The fascist party is aiming to take 10 to 15 medium sized towns in next week’s poll – gains that would represent a huge increase on its previous record of four mayors in 1997.
Success in the local elections will also give the FN a better platform to build for May’s European elections – a much bigger target for the fascists in France and across Europe.
The first-round vote on 23 March put the FN in first place in a clutch of towns and cities, with a slew of strong second places where it may also make gains in the second round run-off. It has qualified for next week’s second round in more than 200 seats.
Nationally, the FN took 5.94% of the vote. But this underestimates its strength: the party put up electoral lists in just under 600 towns with a population of more than 3,000 – far fewer than the mainstream parties, which stood in almost every area with a population of more than 1,000. For the fascists to gain such a high share of the overall vote with so few candidates is alarming.
And the FN’s assault on the town halls this time has been on a much bigger scale than the 122 candidates it stood in 2008.
A map produced by the Le Monde newspaper shows the FN’s strongest performances were concentrated in two strips in the north of France -traditionally an area where the Communist Party has a substantial base – and the Mediterranean south.
The FN vote in the municipal areas where it stood averaged 16.5%, far higher than the 9.22% it scored in the last municipal elections in 2008. This time round, the fascists took nearly a million votes overall, despite the limited number of FN candidates.
In its 20 best first-round results, the FN took between 50.26% to 33.70% of the vote, with an average of 37.91% – a huge increase on the 14.27% average for its best 20 results in 2008.
But discontent with Hollande and the PS has also been reflected in a vote for the radical left, despite a divided approach to the election that saw a split in the leftwing Front de Gauche alliance. In some areas the Parti Communiste Français, formally part of the FdG, chose to make its own electoral deals with Hollande’s PS, despite its record of austerity.
This weakened the FdG. The FN gained more than 10% in eight more towns than the FdG, with a marginally lower number of electoral lists. Its average vote where it stood was higher – at 16.5% compared with 11.42% for the radical left group where it stood on its own.
Not seen on TV
But Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the FdG leader, points out that the radical left’s gains are “not seen on TV”. Against the 473 local councillors elected outright in the first round for the FN, the FdG saw more than 2,000 elected, Mélenchon notes. He compares the FN’s triumph in Hénin-Beaumont with 67 towns taken by the FdG.
A joint list candidate of the FdG and the EELV green alliance is in first place in Grenoble – a substantial town of 150,000 people – ahead of the PS, and the FdG’s Réne Revol came within a whisker of outright election as mayor of Grabels with 49.97% of the vote.
This shows there is pole of attraction to the left of the PS, as well as a threat from the fascist right.
The FN’s local election successes so far follow Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the 2012 presidential elections, when she took 17.9% of the vote in the first round.
In the same year, 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).
These were the first fascists to win parliamentary seats in France 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.
FN leader Marine Le Pen has put much effort into presenting a slick, “respectable” public image for the party, extending the “Eurofascist” strategy pioneered by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the previous leader and founder of the FN.
Marine’s clean-up has been largely successful, with the FN increasingly able to present itself as part of the mainstream – helped by the increasing currency of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant racism among mainstream politicians across Europe.
But the FN remains a fascist organisation. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who notoriously described the Holocaust as a “mere detail” of history, is still at the heart of the party, as the FN’s honorary president and one of its MEPs.
The FN has also quietly kept up links with violent street fighting groups. The French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur has highlighted the connections between the leadership of the FN and the hardcore nazi streetfighters of the Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires, which was banned in the wake of the murder of teenaged anti-fascist activist Clément Méric last year.
Where the FN is in first place
- Béziers: the FN is on a very strong 45.4%, well ahead of the second placed conservative UMP on 30%.
- Saint-Gilles: Gilbert Collard, one of the FN’s current MPs, scored 42.57%, substantially ahead of the incumbent PS mayor who took 23.14%.
- Fréjus: the FN took 40.4%, well ahead of the UMP on 18.8% after the UMP’s vote split.
- Tarascon: the FN has 39.24%, ahead of the rightwing UD-DVD on 33.98%.
- Forbach: the FN took 35.75%, ahead of the PS on 33%.
- Perpignan: Le Pen’s partner and FN vice president, Louis Alliot gained 34.2% for the FN, ahead of the UMP on 30.57%.
- Beaucaire: the FN beat the incumbent mayor with 32.84% of the vote to 22.46%.
- Avignon: the FN is narrowly ahead of the PS, with 29.8% to 29.4%.
UPDATE: where the FN won and lost in the second round of elections on 30 March, plus more analysis 30 March.