The far-right Front National has made a significant breakthrough in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, winning the opening round of regional elections and coming top in half of France’s regions.
The spectacular showing is the highest ever performance for the anti-immigration, anti-European party and, if it maintains the strong lead in in next week’s second round, it could reshape France’s political landscape.
FN, which pushed a hardline stance on Islam, security and national identity, was the only political party to make solid gains in the wake of the Paris attacks three weeks ago in which gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 at bars, a concert hall and the national stadium.
With 95% of ballots counted, the far-right party topped the poll nationwide with 28.6% of the vote, compared to only 11% in the last regional elections in 2010. The FN also came top in six out of 13 mainland French regions – a historic moment for the far right which has never before held the leadership of a French region.
The party leader, Marine Le Pen, achieved a personally high score of more than 40% in the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, the poorest region in mainland France with a population of six million, greater than that of Denmark. Smiling, she announced that her party was now “the first party in France” and that the nation as a whole could “hold its head up again”. She said the party would treat the result with humility and a profound sense of responsibility.
The northern area, hit by the closure of heavy industry, has traditionally been a bastion of the left, with above-average unemployment and poverty rates. Le Pen, who has gradually built up a far-right powerbase there, could take control of the region next week. Key to her high score was the resounding vote for her in the northern port of Calais, where the far right has benefited from controversy over the refugee crisis and thousands of migrants and refugees sleeping rough in the makeshift “new jungle” camp trying to reach Britain. Her score in Calais was more than 50%.
Her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 25, an MP and rising star within the party, won above 40% and could win control of the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which includes some of the richest areas in France. She said: “This is a historic, extraordinary result. The old system died tonight.”
At a recent rally, Maréchal-Le Pen said Muslims could not be French unless they “yield to the manners and our way of life” inherited from France’s Christian traditions. Far more socially conservative than her aunt, she has vowed to stop state funding to family planning centres if elected head of the region, accusing them of “making abortion commonplace”.
FN also topped the poll in eastern regions from Alsace to Burgundy, as well as parts of the centre and south.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing Les Républicains party came second and the Socialist party came third. Even though the Socialist French president François Hollande has seen his popularity rise following his hardline reaction to the Paris attacks, this did not translate into a poll boost for his party at a time of high unemployment, economic gloom and national trauma.
The final result will be decided in a second-round vote on 13 December. Whether FN can transform its first-round score into winning control of regions depends in part on how far other parties are prepared to team up to stop the far right.
During the campaign the Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, called FN “antisemitic and racist”, warning any gains would be a national “drama”. He suggested the left team up with the right to block Le Pen.
The Socialists announced they would pull out of the second-round race in two key regions in the north and the south in the hope of stopping Marine Le Pen and her niece from winning. Socialist voters would be left to back Sarkozy’s rightwing party. It is a risky strategy that has so far proven divisive. Sarkozy said that his party would not form any alliance or pull out of any regions in the second-round.
The FN’s historic score comes just 18 months before the French presidential election of 2017 and is an important indicator of the political mood in France. If the far right now manages to take control of regions in the final-round vote, it will cement its unrelenting grassroots rise across France and its quest for power nationwide.
The party was once simply content with attracting protest votes for the gruff ex-paratrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen, but it has radically changed strategy since his daughter Marine took over in 2011, seeking to build a base of locally elected officials to target the top levels of power.
Marine Le Pen’s strategy is to take positions of power across the country. She hopes these regional elections will boost her chances in the 2017 presidential race where polls suggest she could knock out a mainstream candidate and reach the second-round runoff.
Le Pen has led a drive to “detoxify” the party and move away from the racist, jackbooted, antisemitic imagery of the past. But the party’s hardline positions on Islam and immigration remain unchanged and, since the Paris attacks, FN’s key concerns – the refugee crisis, security, Islam and national identity – have become the main talking points in France, personally benefiting Le Pen.
FN had already been predicted to make gains in the regional elections long before the November attacks. But, after the attacks, the party tapped into a mood of fear and anger and ramped up its campaigning on the issue of security, repeatedly linking terrorism to immigration, citing the fact that at least two of the Paris attackers appeared to have entered Europe posing as refugees.
Le Pen campaigned on issues of Islam’s place in France and national identity, telling a rally in Corsica: “To merit French nationality, you have to speak French, eat French and live French.”
The regional vote may reshape the political landscape, making French politics a three-way race as it gears up for the presidential elections after decades of domination by the Socialists and mainsteam rightwing. French regions control local transport and economic development as well as high schools and vocational training, with beefed-up powers after a reform that redrew the map of France and cut their numbers from 22 to 13.
The vote was the first time an election in France had been held under a state of emergency. Security was stepped up at polling stations, with thousands of police and soldiers patrolling in Paris and security guards checking voters’ bags.