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France: Far-right gains ground in French municipal elections ahead of elections to the European Parliament
13 May 2014
The municipal election results of 23 March 2014 saw Francois Hollande's ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) lose control of more than 150 towns and cities, mostly to the opposition right: the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) and the far-right Front National (National Front, FN). It was reminiscent of the shocking second round of presidential elections in 2002 in which the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, was defeated by then FN leader Jean Marie Le Pen. This situation caused widespread fear in many parts of French society that the FN's racism was becoming "respectable" and raised concerns that the party would make further political inroads in the future. In worrying times such as now, when France is still facing the 2008 economic crisis combined with political austerity measures, the resurgence of the far-right party is all the more dangerous.
The FN was founded in 1972 and the notorious racist, Islmaphobe and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen was the party's first leader until his resignation in 2011. Jean-Marie Le Pen made several provocative Islamaphobic statements and remarks concerning the Holocaust which have led to convictions for inciting racial hatred on at least least six occasions: for example, for his remarks disparaging Muslims in a 2003 Le Monde interview. Since January 2011, the party has been led by Le Pen's youngest daughter, Marine, who has followed in her father's footsteps, accusing Muslims of occupying French territory.
In the March 2014 municpal elections the FN won control of 11 cities of more than 9,000 inhabitants, such as Béziers where more than 46% of the vote went to far right candidate Robert Ménard and Hénin Beaumont where NF candidate Steeve Briois won 50.26% of the vote bringing to an end a century of socialist electoral success.
The FN also won municipalities in:
- Beaucaire, Julien Sanchez with 39.82% of the vote
- Marseille (7th sector), Stephane Ravier with 35.34% of the vote
- Fréjus, David Rachline with 44.55% of the vote
- Villers-Cotterêts, Franck Briffaut with 41.53% of the vote
- Hayange, Fabien Engelmann with 34.70% of the vote
- Le Pontet, Joris Hebrard with 42.62% of the vote
- le Luc, Philippe de La Grange with 42.02% of the vote
- Mantes-la-Ville, Cyril Nauth with 30.26% of the vote
- Camaret-sur-Aigues (Vaucluse), Philippe de Beauregard with 36.13% of the vote
- Bollène, Marie-Claude Bompard with 55.35% of the vote
Marine Le Pen claimed that her party was now the "third force" in France and that their strong electorial performance "marked the end of the bipolarisation of French politics."  After the first round of elections, she declared that the french political system had "shattered".  The French press reached a similar conclusion about the significance of the electoral results. Le Monde said that the former political system "has been replaced by a three-party system including the Socialists, UMP and now the FN too".  President of the UMP, Jean-François Copé said he felt content about the "blue wave" - the UMP's colour being blue - according to the French journal Le figaro. 
The resurrection of the FN can be explained in part by the high level of abstention (around 35%) and the decrease of French President Francois Hollande's popularity, which is now around 18% according to a national poll. The day after the election results were announced, Hollande responded to the electoral succes of the UMP and FN by announcing that he would form a new government. He said his decision was based on the "disappoinment" and "discontent" expressed by the French voters. 
The FN in power
The first decisions taken by new FN mayors only a few days after the elections are cause for concern. The mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, a city of 27,000 inhabitants, demanded the eviction of the League of Human Rights (LHR) for illegally occupying council-owned workspace. The LHR is renowned for fighting anti-Semitism and has long fought against the FN. The trade union Force Ouvrière declared that the city now lives in a "special atmosphere and an unhealthy climate".
Marine Le Pen also announced that in cities governed by the FN, it will no longer be possible for Jewish and Muslim pupils to be served school meals in accordance with their religious beliefs. According to Le Pen, this practice is against secular French values. She claimed that there was "no reason for the religious to enter the public sphere, it is the law".  Le Pen has also accused UMP and PS mayors of "condoning violations of secularism", according to an article in Le Monde published on 5 April 2014. The French anti-racist NGO, SOS Racisme, accused Le Pen of specifically targetting Jewish and Muslim communities and argued that "she uses the defense of secularism to attack aggressively and uninhibitedly her preferred targets that are Jews and Muslims." 
The FN's success comes ahead of elections to the European Parliament at the end of May. An OpinionWay poll predicts that the UMP will lead the vote, followed by the FN which currently has 3 seats in the European parliament, and finally the PS. The average level of abstention for European elections is 60% which is worrying because low voter turnouts have always benefited the FN. Since the FN is staunchly anti EU and opposed to the euro single currency, the FN argues that if they are successful in the European elections it would signify the French population's rejection of the European project.
Marine Le Pen argued in January 2014 that the EU was "the root of France's issues" and that the "European construction" had become the "European destruction".  She claimed that the French population is now aware of the EU's adverse impact on France. Across much of the EU, nationalist and far-rght parties are becoming increasingly popular. Marine Le Pen's FN in France and Geert Wilders's Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) in the Netherlands have been leading in the polls, according to the Electionista website.  According to estimates from Pollwatch2014, a website that aggregates national polls, far right parties could win at least 35 seats, with Marine LePen's FN and Geert Wilders's party leading the way. 
It is possible that at least five other national parties will join the far-right grouping: the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPO, Freedom Party), Belgian Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest), Italian Lega Nord (LN, Northern League), Slovak Slovenská národná strana (Slovak National Party), and Swedish Sverigedemokraterna (SD Sweden Democrats). UKIP (United Kindgom Independence Party) led by Nigel Farage is also anti-migrant and defends Europesceptic ideas, advocating a UK opt-out from the European Union. According to Le figaro and other sources, UKIP could receive 38% of the vote at the European elections, ahead of both the Conservtive Party and the Labour Party. 
 France24, 24.3.14: 'Has the National Front broken France's two-party system?'
 Les Echos, 24.3.14: 'Municipales : les réactions politiques marquantes après le premier tour'
 France24, 24.3.14: 'Has the National Front broken France's two-party system?'
 Le Fiagro, 31.3.14: 'À l'UMP, la « vague bleue » conforte Copé'
 Les Echos, 31.3.14: 'Remaniement : le récit d’une journée sous tension'
 Le Monde, 7.4.14: 'Laïcité à l'école : l'arnaque de Marine Le Pen sur les cantines'
 Le Point, 5.4.14: 'Porc à la cantine : SOS Racisme accuse Marine Le Pen de viser juifs et musulmans'
 Les Echos, 7.1.14: 'Marine Le Pen mise sur le rejet croissant de l’Europe en 2014'
 Express.be, 18.2.14: 'De plus en plus d'Européens semblent avoir l'intention de détruire l'UE de l'intérieur'
 Le Monde, 29.4.14
 Le Figaro, 30.4.14: 'Européennes/GB: l'Ukip en tête des sondages'