In Sunday's local elections in France, the far-right National Front came in second. It may be the party's best showing in a local poll, but it's a setback all the same, says DW's Andreas Noll.
Marine Le Pen has a keen sense for symbolism. It comes as no surprise that on election night, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) tried to humiliate her political competitors with a simple message: "The National Front is the first party in France."
The former protest party used the very same slogan in the wake of last year's European elections to underline its transition to a people's party. But on the night of the election, Le Pen was forced to the contrite realization that her party was several percentage points behind Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives - a bigger gap than expected by pollsters. Instead of celebrating a victory, all Le Pen could do - a ritual by now - was demand the government's resignation.
Coming in second behind the conservative opposition truly is a disappointment for a party that has become quite used to success lately. Even if it was clear from the start that the far-right party will only win a few mandates in the second-round run-off elections next Sunday, due to FRance's majority voting system.
Another lesson for the government
If the FN suffered a defeat - at least measured from a high water mark - it's safe to say the Socialist Prime Minister, who was particularly dedicated throughout the campaign, suffered a fiasco.
Manuel Valls couldn't prevent his party's crash; a crash predicted ahead of the vote by opinion polls. Actually, the conditions weren't even that bad: just a few weeks ago, President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Valls received a lot of applause for their prudent crisis management in the wake of the Islamist terrorist attacks.
But when he tried to paint the FN as a symbol of the devil - Valls suggested this was a crucial test for France - the voters refused to go alongwith that. Instead, an alarmingly large number are convinced that voting for Le Pen is the only way to teach the government a lesson; a lesson, by the way, not only aimed at the desperate situation on the job market but also at the desolate image of the Socialist Party paralyzed by infighting - and a lesson for poor governance.
France faces turbulent times
Initially, the government wanted to abolish France's departments - they go back to the Napoleonic era - by 2021, transferring their authority to the higher-level regions. That could have been a major coup to end the French skirmishes for authority on different state levels, criticized for decades. Applause by experts and the economy would have been guaranteed.
Instead, a Socialist parliamentary majority agreed on quite the opposite just a few days ago: the departments continue to exist and, though details were not yet clear, they have been given even more power. That comes across as a very special kind of electoral farce; proof once again of the government's inability to implement reforms.
Of course, the move was a godsend for the FN leader, in particular because key FN issues like immigration, the EU and economic policies weren't even put to the vote. But the party was well prepared for the ballot. Of all parties, the former far-right splinter party managed to set up the required tandem of a male and a female candidate in more constituencies than the ruling Socialists.
President Marine Le Pen?
Despite the FN's highly visible and growing toehold at the local level and the omnipresent party leader's popularity, the prime minister's warning of a President Le Pen is mainly panic-mongering. But, quite obviously, mobilizing FN potential has its limits.
Even taking into account the French people's pent-up anger, in the end, the sufficiently reasonable majority won't want to see Le Pen move into the country's presidential Elysée Palace residence. Most voters will neither desire nor risk breaking with the republic's values and their European neighbors.
But in the coming months, Le Pen will push her issues even more forcefully onto the political mainstream. This election campaign has shown where things are headed. Not too long ago, UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy spun tales of assimilation instead of integration, and banning headscarves at universities. He will now feel justified in his course.
A strong FN is likely to have consequences for the 2017 presidential elections. It is likely that Le Pen will participate in the run-off, and it is almost certain she will lose, which means the next election is decided in the first round: Le Pen's competitor in the run-off is likely to win the race. That could be a political death sentence for France's traditionally splintered left.