Marine Le Pen is on the brink of exercising real power, 40 years after the foundation of her far-right National Front party.
The anti-immigrant, euroskeptic party had long been expected to do well in Sunday’s first round of regional elections. The terror attacks in Paris on November 13 have given them a further boost.
The party looks increasingly likely to enter the French political mainstream. It is now the country’s biggest party and is on track to govern at least one, if not two, of France’s 13 mainland regions, equal in size to many small European countries.
The weekend gains showed that French politics is very much a three-way race between the center-left, center-right and far-right forces.
The National Front took 30.6 percent of the vote nationally in Sunday’s elections, while conservative Republicans and their allies achieved 27 percent. It was a crushing night for the ruling center-left Socialists, who only achieved 22.7 percent, failing to capitalize on the improved image of President Francois Hollande.
The National Front now leads in six of 13 regions before the second round of voting next Sunday, which will be contested by all parties that reached over 10 percent in the first round.
Both National Front party leader Ms. Le Pen, who was a candidate in the poor northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who stood for election in affluent Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in the south, won more than 40 percent of the vote.
Marine Le Pen announced on Sunday night that the National Front was the “first party in France” and that the country could “hold its head up again.” Her niece, only 25, but a rising star in the party, said: “This is a historic, extraordinary result. The old system died tonight.”
“This is a historic, extraordinary result. The old system died tonight.”
By coming so close to real political power for the first time since the party was founded in the 1970s, the National Front is showing that it can no longer be regarded as a fringe movement.
While the terror attacks have undoubtedly given the party a boost, the electoral gains are part of a long-term trend. Ms. Le Pen has striven to shed the old image of jack boots and anti-Semitism and instead rebrand the party as one that challenges the elite and fights for the ordinary French people.
She has even forced out her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was this year expelled from the party over his repeated denial of the Holocaust.
The National Front’s program takes elements from the right and left, attacking both the European Union and neo-liberal politics, while vowing to defend elements of the welfare state.
Yet while Ms. Le Pen has sought to improve its image, the party’s policies on immigration and Muslims are still very much on the extreme right.
In a country with low growth and lingering high unemployment the thrust of their anti-establishment message resonates with many who feel abandoned by the mainstream parties.
Its repeated linking of immigration with terrorism helped to push it even further ahead in the polls following the killing of 130 people in terror attacks on November 13.
The extent to which the National Front can build on its victory on Sunday depends on how those other parties deal with this far-right challenge.
In previous elections the two mainstream parties have worked together to block the National Front candidate in the second rounds.
In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly made it to the run-off round of the presidential elections, voters from the left and right turned out in droves to defeat him by backing incumbent Jacques Chirac.
Now, like then, theoretically the two parties’ votes combined should be enough to defeat the extreme right on Sunday.
The Socialists have already announced they will remove third-placed candidates from running in the regions where the two Le Pens are in the lead, in the hope that their supporters’ vote can help the conservatives beat the National Front.
However, this time the center-right Republicans are not playing ball.
Their party leader, former president Nicolas Sarkozy who has pushed the party further to the right, said he would not support any tactical alliances with the Socialists or ask third-placed conservatives not to run on December 13.
It’s a dangerous gambit that could leave the way open for the National Front on Sunday.
Ms. Le Pen is now poised to govern the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, a depressed industrial area and home to 6 million people, which could be a springboard for her presidential aspirations.
The French presidential elections are slated for 2017. And Ms. Le Pen seems certain to at the very least reach the second run-off round of voting.
Her political opponents will likely be hoping that 18 months wielding actual political power in the north could show up her limitations and open the eyes of voters to the dangers of giving her the keys to the Élysée Palace.
But the rise of the far-right is reason for worry in Germany too. German entrepreneurs and exporters have expressed concern over the election results in France, traditionally Germany’s largest trading partner.
“The National Front is a threat to the system of market economy in Europe,” Anton Börner, president of the trade association BGA, told Handelsblatt. The market requires freedom, competition and the prevalence of the best, Mr. Börner said, adding: “The National Front wants to do away with all of that. Every market economy will collapse under these conditions.”
He also fears that the party wants to isolate France in Europe, leave the euro zone and erect walls and fences against refugees. “If France is considering itself a purely national state again that mainly acts in a protectionist fashion, this will negatively affect all of Europe,” he added.
Lutz Goebel, president of the association of family firms sees the reasons for the surge in support for the National Front in high unemployment and hopelessness of migrants to ever be integrated into society through work in France.
“France’s government for a long time has only responded to demands from trade unions – the 35-hour work week, high minimum wage, no flexibility for companies, high corporate taxes,” he said.
Mr. Goeble added, “if the National Front will be successful again in the presidential elections in 2017, isolationist policies are imminent at our most important European trade partner France, which will drive France’s competitiveness into the ground.”