Marine Le Pen's far-right party looked poised to take control of at least two of France's new super regions.
While Le Pen herself is now favourite to gain power in Nord-Pas-de-Calais after picking up 40 percent of the first round vote, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is all set to storm to victory in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur after achieving a similar score last Sunday.
That scenario has France's mainstream political parties fretting, while the national press were in shock.
The ruling Socialists are taking the risky move of withdrawing their own candidates to block the National Front. That tactic may just keep the Le Pens out of power.
But is France fussing for nothing? Obviously the victories for the far-right party would be hugely symbolic as Le Pen gears up for a pop at the presidency in 2017, but in reality what would a National Front victory mean for those living in Provence and Pas-de-Calais?
What's really at stake?
The National Front's campaign has focused heavily on national issues, such as security, immigration, Europe. and jobs, none of which can really be touched on with the limited regional powers they would have.
Regional governments in France manage public transport; they build, maintain, and staff secondary schools; and distribute funding to a variety of non-governmental services and arts organizations. They also are responsible for making regional economic plans and determining certain subsidies and special tax arrangements for businesses.
But while most of the National Front's proposals could not be carried out at the regional level, there would still be many opportunities for the party to impose their philosophy of “national preference”— ensuring that the needs of people, companies, and institutions the party considers as “French” come before foreigners.
Marine Le Pen has promised to revitalize and re-industrialize the North through a program of “economic patriotism.” This is Le Pen's euphemism of choice for instating import tariffs and subsidies to boost domestic industry, but how she would scale this down to the regional level is unclear.
Grants for migrant support groups cut?
She has said she would arrange for school lunches to be supplied by local farmers and has promised to “guarantee that Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie is one of the least taxed regions in France”. There are only two regional taxes, however—a €45 fee for car inspections and a 2.5 cents per litre fuel tax—so she would have little room to maneuver on this point.
If elected president of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional council, she has said she would cut public funding to any organizations that help the thousands of migrants in Calais and the surrounding region, saying they ”put in place the conditions that incite them to come.”
In the South of France, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is widely considered to be even more conservative than Marine on social issues. Her platform for the regional elections has focused on a mix of practical measures, like creating a trade school for maritime industries, with hardline stances on national identity and Islam.
In a speech on December 1st, Maréchal-Le Pen said, “In our country, we don't live in the djellaba (traditional Muslim attire), we don't wear veils that cover the whole body, and we don't impose mosques as big as cathedrals.
If the FN wins the regional election in Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur, Maréchal-Le Pen's fervent identity politics could influence funding decisions, cutting funds to organizations that serve those who are not sufficiently “French” according to the FN's definition. Maréchal-Le Pen has promised to cut funding for organizations that “promote communitarianism”—her campaign video shows an icon of a mosque when she says this.
Pork or nothing for high-school meals
Like Marine in the North, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has proposed cutting funding to organizations that host migrants and refugees. Maréchal-Le Pen has also appealed to the region's strong Catholic base by saying she would cut grants to the French equivalent of Planned Parenthood because it “banalizes abortion.”
The French MP has also vowed to look at the heavily-politicized issue of school lunches and more to the point whether pork substitute meals should be offered to Muslim and Jewish pupils in lycées across the region.
But according to Najat Vallaud-Balkacem, France's Minister of Education, the dangers an FN regional presidency would pose to French high schools go beyond lunches.
Regional governments are responsible for building and maintaining secondary schools.
The region manages dormitories, student restaurants, and other services for students who need physical or academic assistance. They furnish high schools with equipment and are in charge of staffing decisions for many administrative functions, with particular power over technical and professional schools.
The minister is concerned that in a far-right controlled region certain kinds of students will be denied access to student accommodation and that the amount of economic assistance given out to certain schools could depend on the make up of the pupils.
National Front will keep their heads down
Some analysts are predicting that they would actually avoid taking any actions in the immediate future, so as not to risk undermining their campaign at a national level.
“The first year needs to unfold without any major crisis, and without repeating the errors of the past to not disrupt Marine Le Pen's presidential bid,” Jean-Yves Camus, the director of a national think-tank on radical politics, told Le Figaro. The FN's track-record of divisive leadership in local governments in the 1990s has been a set-back for the party's image. This time, “the FN would take prudent decisions, for example focusing on fiscal orthodoxy—like they have done in some towns where they have been in control since 2013.”
So while any National Front victory on Sunday night will understandably send further shockwaves around France, ironically, it may actually have little impact on the lives of the people that voted for her.
By Robert Williams Urquhart