After the first round of voting in French local elections, it's clear the far-right Front National has done better then ever. But it's not yet clear whether it will turn into France's political "third force."
"People are disgusted by everything to do with politics - all the endless scandals. It's not just [French President Francois] Hollande, it's the whole tribe of politicians." Such opinions could be heard all over France on Sunday (23.03.2014), the day of the local elections, and they were reflected in the official results. Only just over 60 percent of the voters turned out, and that's a historic low for France. More and more French people have withdrawn their support from those who are supposed to be their representatives, as well as from those who would like to be.
That means that the voices of those who do go to the polls have more weight. Even though they didn't stand in every constituency, the far-right Front National (FN) won 4.7 percent of the vote, after not even taking 1 percent last time six years ago. In Henin-Beaumont in the north of the country, the FN candidate won an absolute majority in the first round of voting. In other towns, the FN candidate beat both Socialists and conservatives, but they'll have to face run-off votes next Sunday.
No longer a dirty word
As one French citizen put it: "I don't vote, but no-one has the right to say that the Front National is a danger," and indeed, the party seems to have stopped being a dirty word in political circles. Ten years ago, no-one would have admitted to voting for them, says the French writer, Pascale Hughes, and now it's dinner party conversation.
Ulrich Wickert, for many years the Paris correspondent for German public television station ARD, says, "The Front National has become socially more acceptable since the old [Jean-Marie] Le Pen is no longer leading the party and his daughter Marine Le Pen has taken over - one reason is that certain key words are no longer used." Le Pen, the party's founder, was repeatedly found guilty in court of making racist or anti-Semitic statements. "She doesn't do that any more; she wants to show that the FN is following serious policies, and she has a long-term goal, which is the presidential elections in 2017."
Political scientist Marcel Lewandowsky of the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg agrees. Many FN members may have racist or anti-Semitic views, but at least the subject is no longer present in public. "That means - and you can see this with other right-wing populist parties in Europe, in Denmark and in the Netherlands - that the party can become acceptable among classes and milieus where it wasn't acceptable before," says Lewandowski.
'Not at all surprised'
He's "not at all surprised" at the result. On the one hand, there's the long-term trend which is allowing the party to be established as an acceptable political force, and on the other, there's the catastrophic picture presented by the two large parties. The Socialist Francois Hollande is the least-liked president since the war, and the conservative opposition (UMP) has been severely damaged by the revelations about Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Wickert also sees real policy reasons for the FN's success: "The most important issue is unemployment, which none of the parties which are in power, neither Sarkozy nor the Socialists, can control." The mood in France is depressed and many young French people are looking for jobs abroad. In addition, a long-established practice of the two main parties seems to be less secure: "There has always been the so-called 'republican election.' Whenever a Socialist had the better chance and his opponent came from the FN, then the conservatives voted for the Socialist. Whenever the conservative was ahead, and his opponent came from the FN, then the Socialists voted for the conservative. The conservatives have canceled that agreement."
Symbolic or real success?
Lewandowsky admits that the powers of French mayors and councilors are limited. Even if FN candidates did well in the run-off votes, their real political influence would remain restricted: "But I would say the increased strength of the FN at local level has significant symbolic effect, and it can then sell itself as the established third force in the party system. I don't think one should underestimate that."
The Front National likes to think of itself as a "third force," but Wickert thinks the term is "a bit too strong." He also doesn't think that Marine Le Pen or anyone else from her camp has a serious chance of the presidency in the foreseeable future.
Lewandowsky is rather more cautious with his prophecies: "It depends on whether the Socialists under Francois Hollande can stabilize themselves - if he can straighten up his performance and his public image - and if the UMP can succeed in selling itself as an alternative to the Socialists. If not, I don't see it as ruled out that the right-wing populists could gain considerable support in France."