Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front (FN – Front National) pulled off a historic electoral performance in last night’s regional elections in France. These regional elections will select the members of the regional assemblies of metropolitan France, Corsica, Guyana and Martinique as well as 18 presidencies (presidencies where a majority is not achieved in the first round will face a run-off election on the 13 December).
As was widely predicted, the far right has gained most of the benefit from the terror attacks in Paris on 16 November. Mrs. Le Pen has claimed justification of her hardline stance against Muslims, immigrants, the EU’s open-border policy, lack of cooperation with the Russians and the weakness of the Socialists in general. In the provinces where Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion, stood for election, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur respectively, they did far better than the average: both charismatic ladies took 42% of the vote.
Though the National Front did best overall, Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans also benefited from the new dynamic in French and European politics. Whereas the National Front is openly against the European Union, Les Republicans are merely Euro-skeptics: they are against any further dilution of national sovereignty, but not intent on a massive roll-back of European institutions.
The other main parties – the Socialists, the Greens and the Left Front – are all pro-EU and support further integration. They were all hammered. The clearest reading of this election is one of massive discontent with the status quo: 50% of the French electorate stayed at home, coupled with a widespread loss of confidence in the institutions and capabilities of the European Union to solve problems or represent the French people.
This is troubling stuff; it gives Mrs. Le Pen a major boost in the run up to the 2017 general election and makes the National Front a legitimate national contender for the first time in its history.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that yesterday’s result was a reaction of shock and fright to the Paris massacre – feelings which might soon wear off. Instead, the success of the National Front has been growing for years. Traditional centres of support for Marine Le Pen’s group are in the North and East of France, where heavy industry and mining have been declining for decades (Pas-de-Calais, Picardie, Alsace-Ardennes-Lorraine, Bourgogne) or else in the South where industries like shipbuilding are disappearing and Muslim immigration from North Africa has been the greatest (Provence, Alpes, Languedoc, Roussillon).
The next national election will balance on the ability of the extreme right to extend beyond their traditional centres of power and offer solutions to a French electorate disillusioned with the promises of the European Union and the indifference and unaccountability of the unelected Brussels elite.
Those unelected elites are right to be worried. The wellsprings of the FN’s support are not going to go away - if anything, they are strengthening. Unlike many of its European partners or the US, France’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, even for a country familiar with a certain amount of structural joblessness. While Germany returned to full employment by 2012 and is now at 4.5% and the United States near to 5%, France has had only 2 quarters of net job creation in the past 18; and the unemployment rate continues to creep up towards 11%.
That is average unemployment, but unemployment amongst minority groups is even higher. There is a clear racial dimension to this as well: while “EU immigrants” actually do better than the national average, non-EU immigrants – presumably from Africa and the Middle East – do far worse. Their unemployment rate is closer to 20%. The fears of the labour market dovetail perfectly with racial attitudes which show deteriorating tolerance for Maghrebis and Muslims in general.
This is not purely a question of skin-tone, as black Africans fare reasonably well. It is a question of assimilating French culture, which is where Muslims are perceived to “fail the test”. The Charlie Hebdo and 16 November attacks do not improve that perception; it lends credence to the FN belief that immigration is a “mortal threat to civil peace in France”.
The combination of continuing economic weakness, an immigration crisis from precisely those areas the French are least tolerant towards and the menace of terrorism are highlighting the inability of European institutions to handle any of these problems. The solutions being contemplated are the traditional ones of the nation-state: closing the borders and bombing ISIS. The EU is not needed to implement those actions; if anything, it is viewed as a hindrance to them. None of these issues are likely to be resolved in the next 16 months prior to the general elections.
A victory of the National Front would be disastrous for the European Union. The FN’s program harks back to the Europe of the 1930’s: stridently nationalistic, blatantly protectionist, xenophobic and inward looking. It still remains unclear, however, whether or not Mrs. Le Pen would actually be able to implement her desired programme: many of the changes – like leaving the Euro - would require the support of the majority of the French people through a referendum.
Additionally, the EU institutions are powerful and retain a significant capability for defending themselves and their interests. The European Central Bank could, in particular, make life very difficult for any French government that it viewed as hostile. Nevertheless, a Le Pen government would lay bare the fundamental contradiction of the EU: that Germany and France no longer agree on its purpose or direction.
It could also provoke a crisis in Franco-US relations: the National Front has traditionally been wary of US power and influence and Marine Le Pen is an avowed admirer of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the Russians view the possibility of an FN victory with glee, an enormously important strategic opportunity that could split the EU and “change the course of European history.”
There is still a long road to 2017, but the challenge of Marine Le Pen cannot be dismissed. The future of the European Union and NATO may depend upon the sickly government of François Hollande and the patience and good sense of the French electorate. That is not encouraging.