France’s mainstream parties beat back a surging far right, whose support nonetheless rose to historic highs in Sunday's regional elections, as it proved a force to be reckoned with. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.
Regional elections in France
France's National Front party failed to capture a single region in the second round of voting, despite having come ahead in six of 13 regions in the first round the week before. But its law-and-order, anti-immigrant message appeared to resonate with many French voters one month after Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris, with more than one in four casting their ballot for the Front.
"Today, all the scenarios are possible," analyst Madani Cheurfa at the CEVIPOF political institute in Paris, looking ahead at the presidential elections two years from now, told DW. "We have three parties that are almost equal when it comes to the ballot box. The political mechanism is such that some win the elections and some don’t."
"But politically, electorally, all the scenarios are possible and open" in the upcoming presidential race, including the chance of a far-right victory.
As it did in March local elections, the center-right Republican party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and its allies emerged the victor. The party captured seven of the country's 13 regions, wresting away the Ile de France region that includes the Paris area from the left.
President Francois Hollande's Socialists and other leftists scored five regions, while nationalists won out in Corsica.
The fractured results spoke less about a commanding victory of any one party, and much more about a consolidated effort to defeat the far right. The left withdrew candidates in two regions, calling on its supporters to vote for the conservatives as a way to block the Front.
Voters also appeared to have responded to a get-out-the-vote call by both the left and center-right, following the Front's surge in the first round. Turnout shot up nearly nine points in the second round to more than 59 percent, especially in three regions where the Front stood a strong chance of winning. Still, the party secured nearly 28 percent of the vote, an all-time high.
"Tonight, there is no place for relief or triumphalism or message of victory," Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, echoing remarks by mainstream politicians to the right and left following the results. "The danger posed by the far-right has not gone away, far from it."
"We need to show proof not to return to politics as usual," Valls added, "that we're capable, especially the left, to give French a reason to vote for and not to vote against."
In the working class Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, Alex Clairboy voted for the left. But he noted, "the National Front is part of the political landscape. Whether we want it or not."
While the left won with nearly 60 percent of the vote in Aubervilliers, the Front still scored second place in the first round of voting, mirroring other gritty Paris suburbs where its law-and-order message has resonated, especially after last month's attacks.
"The National Front is playing on people's fears," resident Luc Tourbez, who also voted left, told DW. "We are at war, but we also remember what it was like during World War II in France. And my generation doesn't want to live this again."
Force to be reckoned with
Speaking to supporters Sunday night, National Front leader Marine le Pen denounced "campaigns of calumny and defamation" by mainstream opponents bent on defeating her party. She ended up losing to the center-right in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region where she ran, despite leading in the first round of voting. Still, she said, the election confirmed the Front's "inexorable mounting, election after election."
In some ways, the party has experienced Sunday's scenario before. Its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in the first round of presidential elections in 2002. But he was routed in the second round, as French voted massively in favor of incumbent leader Jacques Chirac.
But since taking over the presidency from her father in 2011, the 47-year-old trained lawyer has sought to give the Front a friendlier, more mainstream face.
The new look is also captured by Marine Le Pen's niece, 26-year-old Marion Marechal-Le Pen, France's youngest deputy who headed the party's list in the southeastern Provence-Alps-Cotes d'Azur region.
Marechal-Le Pen was also ahead in the first round of regional voting, and lost to the conservatives in the second round.
"There are victories that make the victors ashamed," Marechal-Le Pen told supporters Sunday night, adding of her party's future chances, "there is no glass ceiling."