‘A vote for the far right is a vote for Isis’ (or Daesh as the extremist group is known in France) has been a common statement from mainstream French politicians in recent weeks.
A National Front victory will give Isis the result it needs to promote its propaganda that France is a country that doesn’t want Muslims, argued leader of the centrist UDI party Jean-Christophe Lagarde in the run up to the elections.
The National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen has done her best to rebuff those kind of arguments but nevertheless it’s easy to imagine Isis leaders being quite content when the French regional election results came through on Sunday night.
The far-right party, who have capitalised on people’s fears of extremist Islam and immigration, finished top in six regions and looks set to win control in the north and south east next Sunday unless there is a major mobilization of voters to keep them out.
And even if the National Front end up empty-handed, Marine Le Pen, who picked up 40 percent of the vote in her northern region and 28 percent nationwide, has well and truly broken up France's left-right dominance.
Now she's even threatening to storm the gates of the Elyséé Palace in the 2017 presidential election – an outcome that would have Isis jumping for joy.
The extremist group's goal is to divide Muslim and non-Muslim communities and get the people to turn on each other along religious divides, such as the recent incident of three Muslim girls being attacked and told “they were not French”.
In France that aim is no doubt best achieved under the National Front, which despite Le Pen’s efforts to improve the image, has been unable to shrug off accusations it is essentially anti-Muslim.
(A sign put up outside a mosque in France after the terror attacks reads “French Muslims in mourning. Photo: AFP)
'We are not a land of Islam'
The anti-Semitism that pervaded the party under its former leader Jean-Maire Le Pen has been replaced by anti-Islam sentiment, with Le Pen targeting everything from halal meat to replacement pork dinners for Muslim pupils in schools.
She once compared Muslims praying in the streets of Paris to the occupation of France under the Nazis.
During her recent campaign, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Marine’s hardline Catholic niece and the poster-girl of the party, told packed crowds in the south that “Muslims in France couldn’t have the same rank” as Christians.
“We are not a land of Islam, and if some French are Muslim, then it’s on condition that they comply with the Greco-Roman influenced customs and lifestyle,” Le Pen went on.
While many will no doubt agree with her stance, her words were also undoubtedly music to the ears of the very people who attacked Paris three weeks before the elections.
It's not hard to imagine Muslims in Marseille for example feeling slightly aggrieved by those words. Then imagine how they feel when 40 percent voters in the region show their support for the person who uttered them.
It’s not clear that the Isis terrorists specifically timed their attack to try influence the outcome of the regional elections, but this was certainly a by-product of the atrocities, thanks to the boost the bloodshed has given the National Front.
“This is exactly exactly what Isis calculated,” writes the Rue 89 website referring to the wave of support for National Front.
“Regions governed by the National Front will mean more discrimination, stigmatization and xenophobia.”
And that will play exactly into the hands of the extremists who seek to sow confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims that they hope will end in war.
They want nothing more than Muslims in France to feel unsettled and either leave or be pushed towards extremism.
(Marion Marechal-Le Pen says Muslims are not the same rank as Catholics in France. Photo: AFP)
National unity disintegrated
It’s not just the score of the National Front that will have pleased Isis, but also the apparent disintegration of the national unity that was evident in the days after the terror attacks and the inability of mainstream parties to present an alternative.
Nicolas Henin, a Frenchman who was held hostage by Isis, said in the aftermath of the attacks that what would hurt his former captors more than anything is not bombing raids by French warplanes, but the ability of his countrymen to stay united.
But three weeks on and all show of unity in the face of a common enemy has all but gone, with the elections bringing about a speedy return to politicians' habit of acting in their own narrow interests or those of their parties.
Following Sunday night's shock, Nicolas Sarkozy and his centre-right Republicans party have refused to countenance any kind of deals with the rival Socialist party in order to keep the National Front out of power.
Sarkozy has been heavily criticized for his stubborn stance, including from within his own party.
Voters' concerns not dealt with
Former prime minister and current Republicans senator Jean-Pierre Raffarin chastised the leader of his party.
“When you are third, you pull out. You create a front against the destructive force because now is the time to rebuild,” he told France Inter on Monday.
But this so-called Republican Front is hardly an answer to the National Front.
Even if last minute deals and calls for voters to join the “barrage” against the National Front succeed in the keeping the far-right party from power on Sunday the same old problems will remain.
France’s mainstream political parties have for too long failed to deal with the issues that have led swathes of genuinely concerned French voters to steadily turn towards the National Front looking for answers, namely the flagging economy and steep unemployment, the impact of globalisation and immigration.
Telling voters to just vote against the National Front rather than for a party they believe in, is hardly engaging their concerns and may in the end simply push more into the hands of the far right.
Once the dust settles after Sunday’s second round of votes, French politicians will no doubt try to put the far-right elephant in the room back in the cupboard for another 15 months or so until the 2017 presidential elections, when the same questions will be asked again.
And that will please both Marine Le Pen and the extremists who attacked Paris.