PARIS (Mar. 22)
France’s far-right National Front failed to make the sweeping gains many had initially feared in mid-term regional elections this week, but its base of nearly one in six French voters remains as strong as ever.
With all results counted in France’s 22 mainland regions from the first round of regional elections March 21, the National Front took around 15 percent of the national vote, slightly less than its candidate and leader Jean-Marie Le Pen achieved in presidential elections in 2002.
However, by attaining more than the 10 percent threshold in 18 regions, many of the Front’s candidates qualified for second-round run-offs March 28 — a factor that is likely to result in increased Socialist Party control in many regions.
In the first test of voter opinion since the return of a center-right government in 2002 presidential elections, Jewish leaders had feared the worst as government unpopularity and expectations of low voter turnout appeared likely to galvanize the far-right.
Indeed, government-supported candidates lost out, with strong gains for the leading opposition Socialist Party.
But Noel Mam re, a Parliament member from the Green Party, injected a tone of reserve into an otherwise victorious night for the left.
“We should look hard at this result,” he said shortly after the results were announced. “France still has the strongest support for a far-right party of any country in the European Union.”
Turnout actually increased by some 3 percent nationally, bucking the trend of recent elections, with some 61 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. Nevertheless, support for the National Front remained strong in its traditional bases in northeast and southeast France, with its candidates garnering more than 20 percent of the vote in some regions.
In particular, there was a strong showing for the front in the Nord Pas-de-Calais region, where it took second place.
In other regions, the party had to make do with either third or fourth place, most notably in Provence-Alpes Cote d’Azur, where it had hoped to top the poll and where Le Pen initially had intended to head the party list.
The region, which contains large Jewish communities in Marseille and Nice, saw National Front candidate Guy Macary barely forced into third place.
According to Jean-Yves Camus, a Jewish journalist and expert on the far-right in France, Macary’s showing was indicative of the strong National Front base in the region that mobilized around a candidate who was largely unknown before the election.
“We are seeing here the confirmation of the strong roots of the National Front, which has consistently scored at these levels over the past 20 years,” Camus told JTA. “It’s a worrying sign that even if we say it’s stagnating at the same level, there is still a large bloc of people who are failing to be attracted to parties which support the values of the republic.”
Martine Ouaknine, president of the Nice region CRIF Jewish umbrella organization, described the National Front vote in the region as “catastrophic.”
“It’s understandable that people want to sanction the government, but many people still don’t understand the gravity of such a vote,” Ouaknine told JTA.
While the result in the region in southern France could have been worse, the National Front did make gains in town council elections held there on the same day as the regional vote.
At a national level, CRIF’s executive director, Haim Musicant, said “the National Front’s ideology is still present — with or without Le Pen.”
“It seems that whichever government is in power, there’s a constant 15 percent who vote for the National Front. That’s a worrying sign for political life in France,” he said.
But Musicant pointed out that at least “one lesson had been learned” from the 2002 presidential elections, when low voter turnout coupled with increased support for fringe parties allowed Le Pen to take second place behind the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac.
Ahead of the regional elections, CRIF had taken the unprecedented step of calling on people to vote against candidates from far-left Trotskyist factions as well as the National Front — and in that respect, at least, the results were pleasing for Jewish leaders.
“These results are very disappointing for the far-left,” Camus said, a reference to the joint Trotskyist list of Workers’ Fight and the Communist Revolutionary League, which failed to break through the 10 percent barrier to qualify for the second round.
Moreover, since they garnered less than 5 percent in most parts of France, the Trotskyists would not have seats on most regional councils, he said.
According to Camus, such results proved that “the National Front was still the principal threat” to Jews in France, despite a recent tendency in the community to concentrate on the strongly anti-Zionist message of the far-left.
Another promising sign for the Jewish community was the absence of “a clear Muslim vote,” Camus said. This was particularly manifested in a key region in the Paris suburbs where the Communist Party’s decision to run a high-profile candidate of North African origin did not bring out a noticeable Muslim vote.
Yet there was no noticeable “Jewish vote” either. Claims of some Jewish community support for the National Front were not backed up by results in constituencies with large Jewish populations.
The Paris region slightly bucked the trend in the rest of France, where the center-right vote largely held up despite a strong first-place showing by the incumbent Socialist Party president, Jean-Paul Huchon.
The second-round election there promises to be close, with center-right candidate Jean-Francois Cop in a tight second-round battle with Huchon.
Cop , a government minister who is Jewish, already has made a play for National Front voters in the second round, claiming that if they maintain their votes for the front the result will be a victory for the Socialist candidate.
However, Jewish leaders feel no need to recommend support for any candidate, since the National Front looks highly unlikely to win the presidency of any region.
They therefore would not call on center-right or center-left candidates to pull out to maximize votes against the front in the second round.