Mainstream politicians are giving up on the old ways of battling the far rightby Jonathan Derbyshire / December 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
In June 2013, the French Parti Socialiste (PS) lost a parliamentary by-election in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the southwest of France. The PS had been defending the seat previously occupied by Jérôme Cahuzac, the former budget minister who was forced to resign from the government of François Hollande in April of that year after a financial scandal.
In the first round of voting, their candidate, Bernard Barral, was beaten into third place by Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne of the far-right Front National (FN). The FN lost the second-round run-off to the centre-right UMP (since re-named Les Républicains), but Bousquet-Casssagne claimed an “ideological victory” nevertheless, while his party leader, Marine Le Pen, declared: “The so-called ‘republican front’ is dead.” She was referring to the cross-party appeal to anti-FN voters of right and left that had seen her father, Jean-Marie, crushed by Jacques Chirac in the 2002 presidential run-off.
At the time, I wrote the following: “In truth, the republican front has been on life-support for several years, since Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007 after a campaign in which he’d tacked right on the FN’s favourite topics of immigration and national identity.” Today, after the first round of voting in France’s regional elections, in which the FN took the lead in 6 of 13 mainland regions (excluding overseas regions in which the FN either didn’t run, or failed to muster the 10 per cent of votes required to advance to the second round), the republican front is dead—although the PS, in desperation, is still trying to reanimate the corpse ahead of this Sunday’s run-off.
Immediately after the first-round of voting ended last Sunday, Sarkozy, now president of the Républicains, announced that his party would not be withdrawing its candidates in regions in which it had finished third behind the PS and FN, or where a combination of PS and Green votes leave the Socialists best placed to challenge the far right. The PS, in contrast, immediately withdrew from the run-offs in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, had established commanding first-round leads (40.64 per cent and 40.55 per cent respectively). “When the Republic is at stake,” the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls said, “you don’t hesitate.” (The eastern region of Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine is an interesting exception: there, Jean-Pierre Masseret has resisted pressure from the PS machine in Paris and is not withdrawing his list of candidates, despite coming third in the first round with only 16.11 per cent of the votes; the FN list, led by Florian Philippot, came first, with 36.06 per cent, a lead of more than ten per cent over the Républicains.)
Sarkozy is adopting a strategy known as “le ni-ni”—the “neither nor” (neither collaboration with the PS nor withdrawal in the face of the FN). It is not just a matter of electoral arithmetic, either. As a Le Monde report put it on Thursday, the former president is launching an ideological “charm offensive” aimed at FN voters. Earlier this week he addressed Le Pen’s supporters directly: “I want to say one thing to them: a vote for the FN is not a vote against the Republic. Voting FN is not immoral.” This echoed a line he’d used in his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012: “Le Pen is compatible with the Republic”—compatible, in other words, with the republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity. The architect of that campaign was Patrick Buisson, a commentator with a background on the far right. Buisson is no longer on the scene, but his influence can still be felt; for example, in Sarkozy’s declaration that he was “the first to speak of France’s Christian roots,” something that Le Pen does frequently, of course.
Not all of Sarkozy’s party colleagues are sold on this strategy, however. For instance, Alain Juppé, the former Prime Minister and Sarkozy’s main rival for the centre-right nomination in 2017’s presidential election, has called for a more centrist line. Juppé argues that voters tempted by the FN will always choose the real thing over a facsimile. And Christian Estrosi, who’ll be going up against Maréchal-Le Pen in Sunday’s run-off in the south, has distanced himself from the former President’s appeal to the far right. “Nicolas Sarkozy is not the candidate in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur,” Estrosi said pointedly, “it’s me.”
Whatever happens on Sunday, the Républicains will have to have settle this dispute sooner rather than later if they are to have any chance of regaining the Elysée in 16 months’ time. As for the PS, it is contemplating not only the final death rattle of the republican front, but also the loss of areas it once regarded as its heartlands—particularly in the north, where Marine Le Pen scored so spectacularly last weekend.
One “friend” of the President told Le Monde this week that “Hollande needs to find a new equation.” While he looks for it, and as long as the Républicains are unable to decide how far rightwards they dare to go, Le Pen will be the principal beneficiary.