Whilst the May 2014 European elections are looking auspicious for the French far right, the municipals next March could turn out less favourably. Should local issues dominate the municipal campaign, as expected, most Socialist mayors are well placed to present voters with decent records as incumbents. This may ultimately protect them from the anticipated wave of political discontent with Hollande’s presidency. Similarly, despite being in political disarray since the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) continues to dominate right-wing locales, owing to their networks of well-established notables. The Front national (FN) enjoys no such positive inertia. In elections where embedded local networks are vital to success, even a party now well into its fourth decade still lacks any semblance of regional coverage in this regard. Whilst public opinion polls seem to suggest that the current Socialist crisis should give the FN the opportunity for unprecedented electoral success in the next few months, what are the party’s realistic chances in March, given these structural weaknesses?
The FN is hoping to field candidates in about 500 municipalities. This would represent a significant improvement on the 2008 election, where the party ran lists in just 78 cities with more than 3,500 inhabitants, polling an average 5.5 per cent of the vote where present, and winning a mere 59 seats out of a possible 90,000. Nevertheless, to date only 120 full lists have been announced, reflecting the continued scarcity of FN grassroots. The gender parity law clearly adds to the pressure and, as in the 2011 cantonals, the FN has to consider new younger candidates with little political experience and looser links with the party. The national leadership is increasingly concerned that these outsiders may not fit the ‘respectable’ profile they are trying to build.
Precisely how many municipalities are in danger of falling to the FN in March is still unclear, but a simple extrapolation from the results of the 2012 legislative elections gives an indication of the party’s local strength. The electoral system strongly benefits the winning party, giving it a large majority bonus of 50% of the council seats, thereby producing high levels of disproportionality. In 2012, the FN candidates topped the second-round ballot in 220 municipalities within the boundaries of their legislative constituencies. The regional breakdown shows spatial polarization of the FN with two distinct clusters of support: more than half (56 per cent) of those cities are found in the North East while another third (34 per cent) are located in the Mediterranean South (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 Municipal strengths of the FN: size of municipality and regional polarization
Two-thirds of these are small villages with less than 1,000 inhabitants where the FN has no incentive to invest time or financial resources. Of the remaining 74 towns, the best chances for the FN to make headlines are to be found in three of its traditional strongholds: Istres (Bouches-du-Rhône), Carpentras (Vaucluse) and Hénin-Beaumont (Pas-de-Calais). These are relatively large municipalities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Electoral prospects are equally bright in the slightly smaller cities of Sorgues (Vaucluse), Saint-Gilles (Gard) and Tarascon (Bouches-du-Rhône) which all have just under 20,000 inhabitants. Inevitably the party’s rising stars will be found there: Marine Le Pen will join Steeve Briois in Hénin-Beaumont. Her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen will be on the list presented by a former UMP member in Sorgues. Gilbert Collard can already contemplate a possible easy victory in Saint-Gilles.
Beside this handful of possible ‘symbolic’ wins in larger towns, most of the remaining cases are smaller towns reflecting the territorial distribution of the FN vote in peri-urban zones. In 1995/97, the FN had fielded 490 lists and secured three municipalities with more than 30,000 inhabitants (Orange, Marignane and Vitrolles) and a much larger regional city (Toulon). This year, the FN’s municipal spread might appear to be more diffuse geographically, but it includes a large number of small satellite towns such as Noyelles (Pas-de-Calais), Le Luc, Cogolin and Vidauban (Var), Bédarrides (Vaucluse) and Drap (Alpes-Maritimes). The small far right Ligue du Sud might also exploit its local strengths in the Northern part of Vaucluse to seize a few small towns in the outskirts of Orange where the incumbent mayor and FN dissident, Jacques Bompard, is very likely to win his fourth mandate since 1995.
In the light of its 2012 electoral performance, the FN’s objective to win 10-15 municipalities in 2014 seems an achievable goal. Success at the upper bound of this range, or beyond, would cement the party’s status as favourite to win the European elections in May, as well as demonstrating a game-changing municipal presence. Any performance below 10 would necessarily cast doubt on the true potential of a high-profile party lacking the wherewithal to succeed at the grassroots level. The party will almost as certainly exert its usual nuisance power against the UMP, and once again increase the pressure on the conservative right to consider tactical alliances locally. The FN’s municipal election charter mixes tax cuts, immigration and security issues, staking out an ideological territory very similar to that of the UMP, and very unambiguously opening the door to political cooperation.
This continued testing of the cordon sanitaire between moderate and far right parallels new divisions beginning to emerge inside the party, not least through the increasingly prominent role taken by Florian Philippot and his much contested attempt to repackage the FN as a neo-Gaullist movement. Jean-Marie Le Pen himself seems determined to act as a reactionary force in the party, deliberately obstructing the ‘de-demonization’ strategy of his daughter. The old model of autocratic and highly personalized leadership continues to dominate the FN, as revealed by the building of the ‘Marine’ political franchise since 2011. Strong challengers emerging from local elections inevitably raises the spectre of Mégret and Bompard splitting the party after mayoral victories in the 1990s.
There has also been a shift in polling. Not for the first time, as an election draws near, Marine Le Pen and the FN’s support has begun to founder. Just as 2011 polls predicting a possible run-off place in the Presidentials dropped away in 2012, so the high-tide of public opinion in 2013 has started to falter, with drops of 4-5% in this month’s polls from TNS-SOFRES, OpinionWay and Ipsos. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s strategy of modernization seems to have run out of steam. Over two-thirds still regard the FN as a ‘far right’ party, while another 59 per cent consider it to be ‘dangerous for democracy’ (see Figure 2). It fares little better in its perceived capacity to govern big cities.
Figure 2 Public perceptions of the FN
Source: IPSOS, Poll on the French and the Front National (16 November 2013)
Efforts to rebrand the old far right have been hampered by political controversies. Last November, visible racism resurfaced in the party after a local FN candidate compared the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey on national television. Many new FN recruits left the party, having encountered anti-Semitism and homophobia amongst its grassroots. Earlier in September, Marine Le Pen had created a row by criticizing the appearance of the French hostages freed in Niger, suggesting that they had converted to Islam during captivity. More recently, the FN leader has shown little eagerness to condemn anti-Semitism, racial hatred and Holocaust denial by the controversial stand-up comedian Dieudonné, whose daughter has Jean-Marie Le Pen as her godfather. Such continuity may sustain fears that, just as Orange, Vitrolles and Marignane became notorious for electing far right mayors, so other towns would be similarly stigmatised in 2014.
Much will depend on the focus of the municipal campaign. The mainstream parties have underlined their wish for the municipal elections to revolve around local issues, as is to their benefit. Polls confirm that voters are split almost 50/50 on local or national issues determining their vote (CSA ‘Le match des municipales’, national figures, 10-12 September 2013). Only around a quarter intend voting as a gesture against the Socialist government. The FN can take some solace from the high-profile Hénin-Beaumont municipality, in which Marine Le Pen will stand, where one section of the electorate stands out with 45 per cent intending to sanction the President and his government – blue-collar workers (CSA ‘Le match des municipales’, Hénin-Beaumont, 13-14 January 2014). At least the ouvriers who form the backbone of FN support are largely construing the election in terms favourable to the FN. Yet even here, polls still give an eventual eight-point victory to the Socialist-EELV list headed by Eugène Binaisse.
Parallels with the legislatives, then, may be instructive. As the leader of the party fell to the Socialists in the Pas-de-Calais, the Southern candidates won through to the National Assembly. The newer battlegrounds of the FN in the North may still not reap the rewards of the historical Midi heartland of far right support.
Jocelyn Evans (@JocelynAJEvans) is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds.
Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science based at the University of Nice. They are the authors of ‘The 2012 French Presidential Elections. The Inevitable Alternation’ (Palgrave, 2013) and blog about French elections at 500signatures.com.