Why are so many French voting for the far right?

Is France becoming more intolerant and xenophobic? How can the record score of the extreme-right National Front party in Sunday’s regional elections be explained?

Why are so many French voting for the far right?
Photo: AFP

On Sunday a record percentage of French voters turned out to cast their ballots for the far-right National Front party.

The party was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of hate speech and anti-Semitism on numerous occasions.

While the current leader, his daughter Marine Le Pen, has worked hard to soften the image of her party, it is still seen by many as xenophobic, intolerant, and outright racist, given the anti-EU, anti-Immigration and specifically the anti-Islam sentiments expressed by both leaders and supporters.

So why are almost 30 percent of voters supporting her now, when five years ago the National Front party only picked up 11 percent of the vote in the regional elections?

The migrant crisis and terror threat concern voters

The longstanding problems of the stumbling economy and record-high unemployment have been major reasons why more and more voters have opted for the National Front in recent years.

Sunday's results come on the back of the the National Front picking up 25 percent of the vote in last year's European elections and a similar score in March's “departmental” or county elections.

But now the ongoing migrant crisis that peaked this summer and security in the light of the deadly Paris terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist extremists are now crucial issues that are occupying French voters minds, polls say.

And this is fertile ground for the National Front.

Marine Le Pen has proved more than any other party that she can capitalize on French people’s concerns about radical Islam, migration, border controls and national security.

“People vote on what is most important to them at the time of the ballot,” Nonna Mayer, a political scientist and far-right specialist from Sciences Po tells The Local.

The heightened terror threat from extremist Islam and the fact that it has been linked to the migrant crisis in Europe is why Le Pen is picking up more votes than ever, Mayer says.

After the Paris attacks Le Pen's often inflammatory remarks about Islam and migrants can no longer be dismissed as fear-mongering.

“The terror attacks have allowed her to say ‘we told you that immigration was dangerous. We told you it’s not just bad for unemployment but it also leads to terrorism and crime',” she adds.

In the northern port town of Calais, which is home to the 4,500-strong refugee camp the Jungle, Marine Le Pen received almost 50 percent of the vote on Sunday.

Failure of right and left

What has really helped Le Pen is the perceived failure of the right and the left in France to tackle the very issues that concern voters – the flagging economy, unemployment and immigration.

“Voters have seen the failure of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy and then the failure of current head of state François Hollande and more and more are led to think, ‘well let’s give Marine Le Pen a go',” says French political analyst Bruno Cautres.

Science-Po's Mayer adds: “When there is disillusionment against what Marine Le Pen just calls “the system”, that’s when she prevails.”

Le Pen has shown that her party has benefited from the failure of the mainstream groups, with the National Front picking up voters from both the left and the right – and crucially in regions across the country.

Whereas leftist voters are most likely to switch because they feel let down by Hollande’s shift to the right economically, those on the right turn to Le Pen because they trust her more on immigration.

While her stand-out successes were in the traditionally left north and the traditionally right south east, the National Front also picked up 18 percent of the vote on Sunday in the Socialist heartland of Brittany.

Many also argue that the left and right's desperate attempts to keep the National Front from power is counter-productive and simply allows Le Pen to play the victim and gives voters another reason to turn away from the mainstream parties.

Ifop's Jérome Fourquet says the traditional right-left French political landscape has been completely destabilized.

National Front not the same party as it once was

The political party now led by Marine Le Pen in 2015 is different to the pariah party which was led by her father and founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen has successfully led a campaign to soften the image of the National Front in recent years, which under her father had attracted skin heads and other neo-Nazis groups.

“She has completely rebuilt the party and brought in new people. There are more young people and there are also far more women, particularly among the working class, who are prepared to vote for the National Front,” says Nonna Mayer.

Surveys suggest the National Front has overtaken the Socialists to become the preferred party of French working classes.

Le Pen has also ruthlessly booted out those who have fallen foul of her standards, especially anti-Semites. Potential electoral candidates who were found to have murky backgrounds, Swastika tattoos or racist Facebook posts have all been kicked out of the party in recent years.

Le Pen even barred skinheads from taking part in National Front rallies.

Her efforts to de-demonize the National Front even saw her remove her own father from the ranks earlier this year after his repeated comments about the gas chambers.

Le Pen has fought hard against those who call the party racist or even extreme.

While many critics say the National Front still has the same old rotten core of racists, with the anti-Semitism rhetoric of old, simply replaced by anti-Islam feeling.

No however one can argue that Le Pen has not improved the party's image and made it far more appealing to disenchanted voters.

A little context:

A record score for the National Front in the first round of a regional election shouldn’t, however, be taken as a sign that France is a country of far-right voters.

“We have to remember that a large majority of French people – around 70 percent – did not vote for the National Front,” Ifop pollster Jérôme Fourquet tells The Local.

Not only that but 22 million French people stayed home on Sunday and decided not to vote, with the turnout around 50 percent.

In the first round of the departmental elections in March, the National Front picked up 25 percent of the vote, but failed to win control of any “départements” in the second round.

“Le Pen hasn't won anything yet. Let's wait until Sunday,” says Science Po's Nonna Mayer. 


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