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Dec 5, 2015 | 14:37 GMT

In France, Discontent Favors the National Front

(HUGUEN/Getty Images)
Summary

France is preparing to hold regional elections, and the country's ruling party is bracing itself for the fallout. At a time of high unemployment levels and sluggish economic growth, French voters will likely look to punish the Socialist Party by backing its center-right and far-right rivals instead. The National Front, which opposes immigration and wants France to leave the eurozone, is already expected to win in at least two of the country's biggest regions. The Dec. 6 elections will be the last vote held before France's presidential election in 2017, and every indicator suggests they will mark yet another victory for the Euroskeptic forces gaining strength across Europe.

On Dec. 6, French voters will head to the polls to select the councils of France's 13 metropolitan regions, as well as some of its overseas territories. In regions where no party manages to garner 50 percent of the vote, a second electoral round will be held Dec. 13.

The elections will be an important test of popularity for France's main parties, and they will set the stage for the country's upcoming presidential vote. The Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris gave a slight boost to French President Francois Hollande's approval ratings, but his Socialist Party will probably put on a weak performance in the polls nonetheless. Because the Socialists currently control most of France's regions, they have the most to lose. By comparison, their two main rivals, the center-right Republican Party and the right-wing National Front, will likely see significant gains.

Stratfor will be paying attention to several factors as the regional vote plays out. The first is how well the Republican Party and the National Front perform. For years, the two have been France's most popular political parties, and a good showing in the regional elections will confirm their position as the main frontrunners for the 2017 presidency. This is especially true of the National Front, which has done well in the polls since the start of Europe's financial crisis but has so far won little territory. The group did manage to win spots in the European Parliament in 2014, and it currently controls a handful of French municipalities, but winning a regional race would be a an important step forward in its bid for the presidency.

According to recent polls, the National Front stands a particularly good chance of winning in two key regions: the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur and the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie. Both densely populated areas are traditional party strongholds, where unemployment tends to exceed the national average. The region around Calais has also become a symbol of Europe's migration crisis as thousands of asylum seekers have flocked to refugee camps there, waiting for an opportunity to cross the English Channel to the United Kingdom. It is also next to France's porous border with Belgium, where several of the Paris attackers came from.

The two regions are so crucial that National Front's most prominent members will run there: Party leader Marine Le Pen will compete for Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, while her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, will vie for Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur. The party is also expected to do well elsewhere, including the central Bourgogne-Franche-Comte and eastern Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardenne provinces.

The second important factor Stratfor will be watching closely is the behavior of France's moderate parties. The country's center-right and center-left forces used to have an unwritten pact pledging mutual support, should one of them face off against the National Front in a runoff election, to prevent the far right from winning. But that pact has been neglected in recent years; the moderates have tended to make tactical decisions on a case-by-case basis. On Dec. 2, Union for a Popular Movement Chairman Nicolas Sarkozy ruled out the formation of any alliance with the Socialist Party to stop the National Front, which could ultimately help Le Pen's party in the polls.

Every Opportunity Has Its Risks

Over the past few years, the National Front has softened its image in an attempt to gain favor with a larger share of voters. After she replaced her controversial father as the party's head in 2011, Le Pen decided to rebrand the National Front, moving away from its previous anti-Semitic and racist image.

Still, she did so while preserving the party's hard-line positions against immigration and Islam. Le Pen has also used Europe's ongoing crisis to criticize France's membership in the eurozone and demand the re-establishment of trade barriers to protect French industry. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, she has promised to lower the retirement age and raise the minimum wage.

The National Front's rise had an indirect effect on France's entire political spectrum: Everyone became more nationalistic. Sarkozy toughened his rhetoric against the free movement of people in Europe, and the Socialist government increased its deportations of Roma, also known as Gypsies.

In recent weeks, Le Pen has used the Paris attacks to vindicate the policies she has long defended, from restoring border controls to granting more power to the police. Though the National Front was already France's most popular party before the events of Nov. 13, and opinion polls suggest the attacks will not dramatically sway voters, the country's latest encounter with terrorism will only reinforce Le Pen's popularity, which is already substantial. The attacks could also persuade undecided voters to support the nationalist parties.

While the regional elections present a clear opportunity for the National Front to ramp up its national presence, they also carry several risks. Part of the party's appeal comes from its image as an anti-system party that criticizes France's traditional political elite — an image that is easiest to maintain from the opposition sidelines, not from positions of significant responsibility. Regional governments in France play an important role in education, regional infrastructure and transportation, among other policy areas. Their responsibilities will grow even more in the coming years as a recent reform reducing the number of regions from 22 to 13 takes effect, meaning future regional councils will govern over bigger constituencies than their predecessors. If the National Front wins control of a regional council, it will face its greatest governing challenge yet. A poor performance could weaken its anti-establishment profile and raise questions about its ability to lead the entire country.

The Race for the Presidency

If the National Front performs well in the approaching regional elections, as it is expected to, it will signify yet another success for Euroskepticism. The European Union's economic crisis has hurt the Continent's mainstream parties while strengthening the political forces that criticize various aspects of Continental integration. This year, The Finns — a Euroskeptic party — joined a ruling coalition for the first time, and Denmark's minority government has often had to seek parliamentary support from the anti-immigration Danish People's Party. While Euroskeptic parties have mostly remained within the opposition, they are often able to influence national agendas, as the Sweden Democrats, Alternative for Germany and Britain's UKIP have.

For France, the National Front's success would herald a coming shift in the country's policies on Europe. A strong performance in regional elections will confirm the National Front's position as one of the key challengers for the presidency in 2017, suggesting that France's next leader will be a candidate from either the mildly Euroskeptic Republican Party or the openly Europhobic National Front. Both parties defend the need to re-establish dialogue with Russia and lift existing sanctions against Moscow, and both advocate to different degrees the re-establishment of border controls, the enhancement of domestic security, and the limitation of the free movement of people in Europe. So while the country's presidential election is still more than a year away, all signs point to France becoming progressively less interested in policies that relinquish national sovereignty and more interested in recovering some of the prerogatives it has lost.

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