Crisis Averted? France’s 2015 regional elections

Ben Margulies

The Front National can keep growing, even if it’s unlikely to reach the Elysee

The French Fifth Republic managed to pull itself, punch-drunk, off the ropes to deny the right-populist Front National a victory in the second round of regional elections. Despite fears that the party would take control of two of France’s 13 European regions (France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian oceans have their own regional authorities; the figure of 13 regions includes Corsica, where a nationalist list won in an overlooked development), the Front was locked out in all of them. It took extreme measures – the left withdrew its lists in the two most-threatened regions, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, creating a front républicain against the Front – but in the end, the far right failed to top the polls in any region. The electoral rules for the regional councils assured their mainstream opponents a majority so long as they came in first.

Still, the Front’s performance can only be described as alarming. The party took more than 6 million votes in the first round on December 6th, 27.73% of the total. On December 13th, it took 6.8 million; only a higher turnout kept its vote share from rising (it fell to 27.1%). One could argue that this is simply the FN’s base – after all, Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader since early 2011, won about 6.4 million votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. That was a bit less than 18% of the total, since the turnout was of course higher.

But the recent regional elections were second-order elections, where the crucial socio-economic, social and foreign-policy issues of general elections are absent. (As Kevin Lees points out, regional councils in France have very limited powers.) Turnout is lower in such elections, so the total number of voters for the Front – even with protest votes – should be lower than in a presidential poll. Take last year’s European Parliament elections, which the Front won for the first time with about a quarter of the vote. Even then, the party took only 4.7 million votes, implying that, when the presidential elections came around and the party reached its maximum mobilisation capacity, it would be unable to do much better than Marine Le Pen achieved in 2012. The Front seemed to have an absolute ceiling of 6-7 million votes, and that would never exceed 20% of the vote for the presidency.

Except now the Front not only won a record share of the vote (27-28%), but managed to mobilise that 6-7 million in an off-year election to a not particularly important tier of government. The Front’s trend in recent second-order elections has been relentlessly buoyant – from 4.7 million and 24.85% at the June 2014 European polls, to 5.14 million and 25.24% at the March 2015 departmental elections, to the 6.8 million it scored on December 13th. Marine Le Pen won more than 40% in both rounds in her base, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, and apparently did not even run the most vigorous campaign there.

Almost certainly, this growth is partly due to the various security- and immigration-related crises of the past year: the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the mass exodus of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, and the November 2015 Paris massacres. But the Front’s unsettling rise long precedes these events, and the decay of France’s establishment and mainstream parties was clear to observers as far back as the end of the last century. Peter Mair’s thesis on the decay of mainstream parties, starved by the dissolution of mass memberships and organisational linkages and choked by a stifling neoliberal consensus, applies to France with particular acuteness, with its elitist political culture and decades of poor economic performance and strained social cohesion.

So how far can the Front go? This question is of special import in France, because of its almost uniquely strong presidency, and the two-round ballotage system used to elect it. To become President, Marine Le Pen needs an absolute majority of votes, a barrier almost uniquely high in Western democracies. Can the Front win that majority?

One way to consider the question is to examine who votes for the Front and similar parties. Typically, right-wing populist parties appeal to certain kinds of voters. One key group, according to current theory, are “modernization losers” from the industrial working classes who have lost their jobs with globalization – as Loch and Norocel (2014) put it: ‘The ideal-typical voter of such parties is a first-time voting young male, belonging to the petty bourgeoisie and the working class, with a relatively weak formal education qualifications and a rather low level of religious practice.’ Goodliffe (2013) adds in the petits indépendants of the middle-class: artisanal workers and small-business owners side-lined by globalization. Betz (1993) describes these as the ‘one-third’ of society that has not benefited from the post-industrial and globalized economy (‘an increasingly marginalized sector of unskilled and semiskilled workers, young people without complete formal education and training, and the growing mass of the long-term unemployed’). To this we can add social conservatives and authoritarians, and some specifically French groups, including traditionalist Catholics and the pieds noirs, the former French settler populations in North Africa.

If Betz’s thesis is correct, than the Front should have a natural ceiling; not everyone can be a modernization loser, and only a minority of voters vote for ‘post-materialist’ reasons. And the Front won’t capture all of these groups; France’s banlieues are full of ethnic-minority modernization losers, who certainly aren’t voting Le Pen (or at all, it would seem). As major parties decline in a fragmenting society, we can expect the number of parties to grow, and that too would tend to put a ceiling on the Front’s capacity to expand its support, and that ceiling is well below 50%. One of Le Pen’s former advisers suggested as much: ‘They have gathered as many votes as they can among French people who are suffering, who are dissatisfied with the government and hate the “system”. But they need to get from 30-50% of the vote, and that is going to be the hardest part by far. I don’t think they have the means, currently, to do it.’

In established Western European states, it is fairly rare for far-right parties like the Front National to get 30% of the vote, much less an absolute majority. The Freedom Party of Austria, one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties, which has been in federal and state governments several times, has never done better than 26.9% in a general election (2009). The Swiss National Party, that country’s leading purveyor of anti-immigrant sentiment, topped out at 29.6% in October 2015’s legislative polls.

All this suggests that the Front has a larger core base now than it did, say, even five years ago, and that Marine Le Pen could exceed her 2012 score quite easily in the next presidential election, due in the spring of 2017. The opinion polls suggest much the same, rarely giving Le Pen more than 30% of the vote in the first round. In the forced choice of the run-off, Marine Le Pen loses, just as she did in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie on December 13th. The National Front’s strength does seem to mobilize leftist, or just anti-Front, voters: turnout jumped from 50 to 58% between the two rounds of the regional election, while the Front’s vote share remained little changed.

However, it may not be impossible. Remember, one of the factors in Mair’s thesis about party breakdown is the fragmentation of society in general; the decline of mass working- or middle-class organizations and identities, and of collective identities in general. In general, this seems to be causing fragmentation, making large pluralities more difficult. But this decline of class and other historical internal cleavages also means that Western Europe is converging, somewhat, with post-Communist Eastern Europe, where class identities and other natural cleavages were obliterated under Communism. With fewer hard class barriers, it may be possible for a populist party to someday cast a much wider net. And Marine Le Pen herself has worked very hard to broaden her party’s appeal, abandoning the less popular extremist stances her father embraced, such as his barely concealed anti-Semitism, and to adopt a bastardized form of France’s mainstream liberal, republican discourse (which she claims to be able to defend better than the incumbent elites). The Front is showing signs that it is appealing to new groups of voters, including new elements of the middle classes; it took a fifth of the vote of the professional classes in the 2014 European polls, not too far off the 24.85% it won overall.

We can look at the comparative performance of other right-populist parties. Take Poland’s Law and Justice, an organic-nationalist party which also represents ‘modernisation losers’ and has deep roots in a Catholic-inflected right. Law and Justice narrowly won an absolute majority in the October 2015 general elections in Poland. A parliamentary system affords a lower hurdle than a two-round presidential election: Law and Justice only won 37.6% of the vote. But in Hungary, Fidesz really did win an absolute majority in a general election, in 2010 – on a low turnout, but it won. In both cases, the combination of a discredited elite, weaker party loyalty and civil societies and a large concentration of ‘modernization losers’ created populist pluralities or majorities. Fidesz’s subsequent turn in government – its emasculation of checks and balances, politicization of public services, legislative gerrymandering and ethnic and religious chauvinism – may provide a foretaste of what Front National France would look like.

So are we likely to see a President Le Pen? On the balance of probabilities, we are not, or at least not we are not anytime soon. The French system of government introduces an unusually high barrier to executive power which few parties can surmount, and provides unusually strong incentives to anti-Front alliances. Tellingly, Michel Houllebecq’s succès de scandale from earlier this year, Soumission (Submission), suggested it was more likely that a version of the Muslim Brotherhood would win the presidency than Marine Le Pen. But in a world where old certainties and identities are being swept away, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Marine Le Pen or another National Front figure could someday win power. The changes to European party politics are unprecedented; we have never had a mass politics without the old mass parties, or in the context of a European Union and such high rates of immigration. If right-populists like Le Pen are the spectre haunting Europe now, uncertainty is the white sheet cloaking its ghostly form.

Ben Margulies completed his doctorate at the University of Essex on the electoral behaviour of liberal parties. Previously he has worked as a policy researcher and his research focuses mainly on party systems, new political parties and populism. Ben is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick, currently working on the ERC-funded Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty Project.