France’s political mainstream has been left trying to understand how, despite an electoral pact against the National Front’s Laurent Lopez, the far-right candidate handed a humiliating defeat to the two biggest parties, the Socialists and centre-right UMP, in a regional council by-election in Brignoles, in Var.
“This is confirmation that the Republican Front is dead,” said a triumphant National Front leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday night, referring to the electoral coalition used for years by the main French parties to keep the far-right out of office.
The Huffington Post in France viewed the results similarly, with its headline: "Front national 1, Front républicain 0."
“This is above all a defeat for the Left,” said former centre-right Prime Minister François Fillon, however, pointing a finger at the governing Socialists, who didn’t put forward a candidate in Brignoles, but rather encouraged their base to vote for the centre-right UMP candidate Catherine Delzers.
Socialist Education Minister Vincent Peillon called the result “bad news for democracy and the [French] republic,” a sentiment echoed by Socialist spokesman Thierry Mandon who said “The Republican Front isn’t working.”
What was to blame for the popularity of Lopez among voters in Brignoles? The general consensus seems to be that the electorate were fed up and frustrated with the mainstream parties, rather than particularly enthusiastic about the National Front.
Fillon, who has announced his intention to be the centre-right’s presidential candidate in 2017, called the ballot a “new manifestation of the exasperation of our fellow citizens.”
UMP leader Jean-François Copé, for his part, attributed the defeat of his party’s candidate to the “disastrous management of [Brignoles] by the Communists, and the catastrophic management of our country by the Left.”
C'est le résultat d'une double peine : gestion municipale désastreuse par le PC et gestion calamiteuse du pays par la gauche. #Brignoles
— Jean-François Copé (@jf_cope) October 13, 2013
A 'Final Warning' for mainstream parties
The French media have been warning of dark days ahead for France, with local and European elections next year, and quick to apportion blame.
Right-leaning Le Figaro blamed mainstream voters for who didn’t show up to vote for the result, and the parties who failed to motivate them.
“The [abstentionists] have demonstrated their weariness and confusion,” said columnist Paul-Henri du Limbert, also blaming the result on “those who are underestimating the exasperation of a section of public opinion.”
Local newspaper La Montagne, in an editorial entitled “Final Warning”, said the main parties should “admit their shared responsibility for the collapse of their electoral bases.”
Indeed, the dark predictions have begun in earnest since Sunday night. In its editorial, regional newspaper Sud Ouest warned: “This victory heralds even more victories.”
With France facing local and European elections in 2014, there is widespread concern that the National Front will be able to replicate nationwide the stunningly effective voter-mobilisation it achieved in Brignoles.
Northern daily La Voix du Nord reminds readers in its editorial that the lower the overall voter turnout, the better the chances of election for the National Front candidate, who supporters are extraordinarily motivated to vote.
'Let's not get carried away'
Professor Philippe Marliere from University College London, however, played down the significance of the by-election, telling The Local the shock result at Brignoles was more a vote against the current president rather than for the National Front.
“It’s always difficult to draw conclusions from local elections, especially in an area where the National Front have been traditionally strong and the left were also disunited," he said.
“But we have to look at a number of things, in particular the fact that only 45 percent of people voted. So it doesn’t mean the National Front greatly increased its share of the vote, it’s just the supporters of other mainstream parties just didn’t turn up.
Marliere also suggests the National Front party may have benefitted from the recent rhetoric by Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls, on immigration and the Roma community.
“There’s been a clear shift to the right by the mainstream parties, both the UMP and the Socialists. If you talk the talk of the National Front, like Valls did about the Roma, then you help to legitimise that party and suggest to the voters that they have no reason not to vote for it.
“This result doesn’t mean, as Marine Le Pen says, that the National Front have become a mainstream party,” said Marliere,
Socialist Party president Harlem Désir echoed those sentiments. “[The National Front] is far from becoming France’s main party, despite what their leadership is saying this week,” he said.
French Agriculture Minister Stéphane le Foll also called for perspective in the aftermath of the result. “Let’s not get carried away. The National Front was already a threat. What we have to do now is concentrate on the important things – jobs, investment, and so on,” said Le Foll.