Electoral Blowback From France's Austerity Policies

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In the end it was not the triumph that some had trumpeted last week. On Sunday the Front National made significant gains in the second round of the municipal contest by securing the election of more than 1,400 local councillors (up from 60), and by winning 13 municipalities across France (up from 0). Yet those good results do not represent a political earthquake. If the FN has significantly improved its positions locally compared to the 2001 and 2008 elections, its overall standing is broadly speaking on a par with the 1995 results. This said, the FN’s electoral performance should not be downplayed either. The extreme-right party has now a broader national base after increasing its share of the vote in regions where it was traditionally weak (west, south-west and centre). Some wins are impressive: Hénin-Beaumont (north), a former mining town and a historical bastion of French socialism; Hayange (north-east), an industrial working-class area, as are Béziers, Fréjus, Cogolin or Baucaire (south-east). Taking Sunday’s gains into account, the FN remains a relatively modest political organisation: it only managed to field lists in 587 communes across France out of a possible 36,000. Party officials were anxious not to overstretch their modest financial and human resources. In the 1990s, a previous experience at the head of municipalities in the south-east was considered a disaster. In Toulon, Marignane and Vitrolles, the FN attempted to implement discriminating policies against foreign residents which were deemed anti-constitutional and annulled by tribunals. The party eventually lost those three town halls after only one term in office. Furthermore, the FN remains a relatively small party at local level: the centre-right UMP won 109 cities of more than 30,000 inhabitants, the centre-left Parti socialiste (PS) secured 56, the centre-right UDI 28, the Communist party 22, centre-right Modem 6, the Greens 2 and FN 2. But the latest surge is qualitatively significant. Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen has a long-term strategy. She understands that to win the presidential election, she needs the support of a web of elected members and activists on the ground. She pursues a strategy of “de-demonisation” of her party, and hopes that it will soon be regarded by the majority of the population as mainstream and respectable. The FN leader has distanced herself from her father’s racist remarks and antisemitic puns. Instead she concentrates on bread-and-butter issues, criticises globalisation and finance, and wants France to quit the eurozone and the EU altogether. In short, she has reinvented herself as a politician on the side of “ordinary folks”. This stand appeals to blue-collar workers in the northern constituencies. In the south, she hammers home more familiar FN themes: law and order and the “threats” of multiculturalism and communitarianism. She champions laïcité (the French secular polity, historically a leftwing cause) which, she argues, has come under threat with the rise of Islam. This strategy has so far been successful. She has captured working-class voters who traditionally supported the UMP: 40% of the UMP electorate believe that their party’s values are compatible with the FN’s. A growing number of UMP party officials and activists are in favour of an alliance with the FN. This trend is putting the UMP leadership in an increasingly awkward position. The Socialist party lost 155 cities of more than 9,000 inhabitants, and abstention rose to a record 38.5% in the second round. Traditional leftwing working-class voters did not switch their vote to the FN, but simply abstained. François Hollande alienated Left Front voters (radical left) who often refused to back socialist candidates in the second round. Dramatically unpopular with the voters, Hollande is now taunted as the “president of the rich” as he is a socialist who cuts taxes on the wealthy while raising VAT for all. He is sticking to Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed austerity policies: unemployment and public debt are skyrocketing, and despite granting firms countless tax rebates, the economy is not expanding. After breaking his campaign promises, Hollande is now widely regarded as the supine ally of big business and Angela Merkel. Le Pen may talk the talk, but she will not walk the walk. She may address the socio-economic issues that matter to the ordinary people, but her “autarchic capitalism” offers little to workers. Most voters know that, but they also cannot fail to notice that Hollande cannot even be bothered to talk the talk. Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere  

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