Usually, local elections in Europe hold about as much interest to Americans as a French cheese-tasting contest.
But with the refugee crisis, and the rising tide of terrorism showing across the continent — two issues that are becoming linked in the public’s mind — today’s first leg in France’s regional elections promises to give a clue to the political fortunes of incumbent parties, as well as the strength of nationalist parties.
Newly redrawn electoral districts in France are voting today, the first of a two-part process that will conclude on December 13. Conservative and nationalist parties are expected to make big gains, as unhappiness with the French Socialists’ handling of the economy and the belief that the acceptance of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East is dangerous combine to deliver a one-two punch to President Francois Hollande.
“It’s an important moment, important for the future of our regions, important also for the future of our country, important with regard to the catastrophic and dramatic events that have hit France,” Le Pen said as she cast her ballot in the northern city of Henin-Beaumont.
Le Pen is campaigning to run the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, which includes the port city of Calais, a flashpoint in Europe’s migrant drama. Polls suggest she could win.
Her young niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, appears to be on even stronger footing in her race to lead the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, including the French Riviera and part of the Alps.
A win for either would be unprecedented in France, for a party long seen as a pariah.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the conservative-leaning national business lobby issued a public appeal this week to stop the National Front’s march toward victory. Le Pen has worked to undo its image as an anti-Semitic party under father and co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and has lured in new followers from the left, the traditional right and among young people.
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and the exploits of IS, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, have bolstered the discourse of the National Front. It denounces Europe’s open borders, what it calls the “migratory submersion” and what it claims is the corrupting influence of Islam on French civilization.
Le Pen’s National Front Party is opposed by the establishment largely because they fear the left-wing backlash that would ensue if the right ever came to power in France. The New York Times has called Marine Le Pen “France’s Kindler, Gentler Extremist,” which gives you an idea of how the left’s heads will explode if she ever achieves power.
National Front is openly hostile to not only immigration, but the entire idea of a European Union. Across Europe and Great Britain, these twin sentiments are beginning to drive politics, creating a wave that appears to be ridden by conservative and anti-EU parties like NFP in France, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and UKIP in Great Britain. Elsewhere, Eurosceptic parties are far less organized, but the twin crisis of terrorism and immigration is driving more mainstream politicians to the right as commitment to the EU weakens and a hardening of attitudes toward immigrants begins to play a role in politics.
It’s tempting to see the rise of Le Pen in France as a harbinger of the future. But the French — as most voters in the rest of northern Europe — are too much in love with their generous social programs to ever seriously entertain the idea of electing a real conservative to national office. But the question is, will mainstream political parties heed the warnings coming from voters disgusted with inaction on their moribund economies and angry about unhindered immigration?
If not, many of them will be surprised the next time they stand for election.