Ultra-right makes worrisome advances in French regional elections

On Sunday, Dec. 6, France held the first round of elections for thirteen of the country’s 27 regional councils in France Proper and also in the overseas, French-controlled colonies of Martinique and French Guiana, as well as the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. The country is in the process of consolidating the number of homeland regions down to 13.

These regional councils are not legislative bodies but administrative ones, which control large budgets and therefore potential political patronage.

The extreme right-wing National Front managed to make big advances at the expense of the Socialist Party of French President Francois Hollande. Les Republicains, which is the new name for the UMP of former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, also increased its regional presence a little bit.

As France has runoff elections, there will be a second round on Sunday, Dec. 13 to determine who will actually serve the six-year terms. In the runoff, any candidate who got at least 10 percent of the vote in the first round is allowed to compete, not just the two highest vote-getters.

In Sunday’s first round, with a rather low turnout of 49.51 percent, the National Front managed to get more than six million votes, or 27.73 percent of those counted. Sarkozy’s les Republicains got 5,785,0703, or 26.65 percent, and the Socialist Party, Greens, Left Front and Communists, got 5,019,723 or 23.12 percent.

The National Front’s vote represented a 16.31 percent jump over its vote in the last elections in 2010. Les Republicains increased their vote slightly by .63 percent, while the Socialist and left’s total dropped by 6.02 percent, mostly because of a sharp drop in the vote for the Greens. The Left Front (Front Gauche), encompassing the Communist Party and close allies, got a total of 2.4 percent.

The sharp increase in the National Front’s vote was the most remarkable result of these elections, and fits in with recent growth of the ultra-right in other European countries. For example, Poland had a presidential election on May 10 with a runoff on May 24, and a parliamentary election on October 25. In both of these elections there was a strong move to the right. Switzerland had a federal election on October 18, which also showed a marked right-wing trend. The Sweden Democrats, a right-wing, anti-immigrant group, are now the biggest party in that country. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party is also surging.

In France, as in each of these other countries, the most common interpretation of the right’s surge is hostility toward immigrants, refugees and foreigners in general. The French regional election came right after the terrorist attack of November 13 and 14th of this year, in which 130 people were murdered and hundreds injured.

This event followed hard upon the acrimonious controversy about refugees from Syria and Iraq; and earlier in the year the terrorist attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo humor magazine, which killed 20. There have been several smaller scale attacks as well, and in both the Charlie Hebdo attack and the main attack in Paris, it is quite clear that the attacks came from extremist militants, from Al Qaeda in the case of Charlie Hebdo, and from ISIS in the Paris attack.

The extreme right, including the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, have responded to these incidents by ramping up their anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, with the implication that both the centrist Socialist Party and the right wing UMP, now les Republicaines, have betrayed the people of France by not defending them against such attacks. Both Sarkozy’s party and Hollande’s government have responded to this by maneuvering rather than taking principled stands against bigotry: Sarkozy by trying to steal the clothes of the NF and Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, by cracking down on migratory Roma in France.

Among other things the National Front will work to prevent any settlement of Syrian refugees in the country.

But there is another issue that feeds into the campaigns of the ultra-right. Under the current regime of the European Union, the Euro Currency Area and especially the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact, France, like other European countries, is pressured to carry out austerity policies that have negatively impacted the well being of the working class.

Since these policies are being carried out by a government that is nominally “socialist” (really, social democratic or centrist), many members of the working class feel themselves betrayed by a party for which they voted in the last presidential elections, in 2012. The refrain is familiar to us in the United States, one of right-wing, nationalistic populism which damns, simultaneously, the rich, the government and immigrants. We currently hear this from Donald Trump and his ilk; in France they hear it from Marine LePen, and in other countries from similar misleaders.

The Communist Party in France, and the Left Front (Front Gauche) of which it is a part, also oppose the Stabilization and Growth Pact and the austerity policies, but also denounce the National Front’s anti-immigrant and anti Muslim agitation as being close to fascism. But their vote totals have been much smaller than those of the National Front in recent elections.

What is to be done to minimize the advance of the National Front, in the December 13 runoff election and thereafter? The Socialists and the left find themselves in a time warp. In the 2002 presidential elections, the Socialists did so poorly that they found their candidate, Lionel Jospin, in third place after right wing incumbent president Jacques Chirac, who was correctly suspected of corruption, and the National Front’s candidate Jean Marie LePen, father of Marine LePen, who was even more openly fascist than his daughter and anti-Semitic to boot. In these circumstances one slogan was for left wing voters to “vote for the crook (Chirac) and not the fascist (LePen)”.

In fact, the Socialist Party has now called for its candidates in several regions to withdraw so as to united forces behind les Republicaines and defeat the National Front candidates. In the vitally important Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris and has 12 million inhabitants, the left and center forces-Socialists, Communists and Greens, have decided to unite behind a single slate of candidates.

One of the biggest French labor union federations, the CGT, is pulling out all stops to block the National Front on December 13, as are other people’s organizations.

Photo: In the afternoon of December 5, in Place de Clichy in Paris, about 1,500 CGT-Unemployed and allies demonstrated against “unemployment and insecurity” and for “social justice.” They were joined by militant housing activists, support groups for undocumented workers and climate activists.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.