Marine le Pen’s extreme right Front National was the most popular political movement in France. For exactly one week. But this morning, Australian time, les citoyens pulled back from the brink.

Sunday eight days ago, the first round of elections was held to elect governments for France’s 12 mainland regions and various external provinces — equivalent to Australia’s states and territories. These elections do not change the national government, but are a strong indicator of sentiment towards it.

The campaign was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Paris just over four weeks ago, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds more. Most commentators expected this would enhance the appeal of the hard right, anti-immigration Front National (FN). Over the last week, it seemed to have done so.

Last Sunday, the FN was front-runner in six out of the 12 regions – newly enlarged by amalgamating 21 smaller provinces – and close second in two others. Despite more than ten parties vying for votes, it won more than 40% of the votes in two regions and more than 30% in another four. Impressive. Overall, the FN vote was 28.4%. Second was the grouping of centre right parties, including the newly-named Les Républicains led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy on 27.5%. The centre left group, which includes le Parti Socialiste of incumbent president François Hollande, came third with 24.7%. All the minor parties shared the remaining 19.4%.

To win the election, a candidate needs 50% of the vote, plus one. This happened in none of the 12 regions last Sunday, so a second round of voting was held yesterday. This was the last shot. If no candidate exceeds 50%, then the highest vote-getter wins. None of this cascading preferences nonsense.

As with many things here in France, things are not always as they seem. The FN did not advance in the second round. The final vote saw the centre right or the centre left sweep past them everywhere. The latest count shows centre right 40.3%, centre left 30.6% and the FN 28.9%. So the FN got virtually the same percentage as last weekend, despite fewer opponents.

At least three factors contributed to this. First, the protest vote. Most elections here are in two stages. The first round allows a myriad of parties to stand, most of which are eliminated. The serious vote takes place the following Sunday when candidates are whittled down to two or three. This enables voters to express their frustration in round one, often with a vote for the party perceived as furthest outside the political establishment. Currently, this is the Front National with its calls to close borders, end all immigration, shut down mosques, eject Muslim leaders and generally make life miserable for minorities.

So the strong initial FN vote probably reflected dissatisfaction with politics rather than a real resurgence of racist sentiment. It is highly likely that many who voted FN the first week changed their vote yesterday, although this is difficult to verify.

Second, deals were done during the week to ensure moderate candidates were given the best chance. The region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais–Picardie, where FN leader Marine Le Pen stood herself illustrates this neatly. She gained a thumping 40.6% of the vote in the first round, well ahead of the centre right Xavier Bertrand’s lowly 24.97% and the centre left Pierre de Saintignon’s embarrassing 18.12%. With all six other first-round candidates eliminated, Ms Le Pen looked set to win the second stage in un galop. But the centre left candidate decided to drop out to make it a two-way between the right and the hard right. The final vote was 55.19% for Bertrand and just 44.81% for Le Pen – a drubbing in two-party terms in Australia.

Third, the first round often has low voter turn-out. In our small village, of the 532 registered voters only 338 voted last week. More than a third were happy to sit back with their pastis and observe. Would the incumbent socialists romp it in, boosted by President Hollande’s popularity following his swift decision after the Paris attacks to bomb the merde out of ISIS? Well, clearly not. So 366 braved le froid yesterday. The local count suggests most of the 28 new voters supported the centre left candidate, who eventually won the region.

The final result is that seven of the 12 regions changed from centre left to centre right and five stayed with the left. Although these governments have limited legislative power, they administer vast budgets and deliver services similar to Australia’s states and territories.

This is clearly a solid win for the centre right. It will almost certainly guarantee Nicolas Sarkozy a place on the presidential ballot in 2017 and boost his chances of moving back into le Palace.

The result is a repudiation of recent outcomes in Austria, Switzerland and Poland, where voters swung to the hard right.

Whether the partial shift away from the left is attributable to Hollande’s response to the Paris killings, the general mood of anxiety about national security, or other issues – the economy, the European Union or France’s loss to Australia in the women’s rugby world cup – is not as easy to judge.

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist residing near Nîmes in southern France. You can follow him on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing

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