Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen Reuters

Municipal elections across France on Sunday hammered the ruling Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande, amid an entrenched economic malaise, while the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) strengthened in support and the extreme right-wing National Front (FN) delivered a historic performance, taking control of at least 11, perhaps as many as 15 municipalities, and gaining some 1,500 seats in local councils. This breaks the FN’s previous zenith of mayoral power – during the late 1990s the party briefly controlled four towns. Marine Le Pen, the leader of FN (and former Presidential candidate) has crowed that the strong results will provide momentum for her party’s participation in next month’s European Parliamentarian elections.

FN gained control of such towns as Beziers and Frejus in the south, Hénin-Beaumont, in the north, and Villers-Cotterets, north-east of Paris. Even more impressive, FN won the seventh district of the southern port city of Marseille, an area of some 150,000 inhabitants, making it the party’s largest win. "We have moved onto a new level," Le Pen said. "There is now a third major political force in our country." Despite the far-right’s relatively sizable gains among the electorate, its road to Élysée Palace remains a hopelessly distant dream.

But first, the bad news for Hollande and the Socialists – the party lost power in more than 150 major towns (those with at least 9,000 residents) across the country, mostly to the right-wing UMP. Given that Hollande’s popularity level languishes at all-time lows of 20 percent, as unemployment remains stubbornly at or above 10 percent, a thumping of the Socialists was to be expected in these polls. Still, the scale of the Socialists’ poor showing had newspapers frothing at the mouth, with the liberal Liberation paper calling the results “The Punishment” (of Hollande); Le Parisien explicitly declaring: "We have a government team that is failing;” and the right-wing le Figaro bellowing: "The blue tsunami engulfs Hollande" (referring to the symbolic color of the UMP party). "It has been a black Sunday," admitted Socialist MP Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the party’s deputy leader, reported the Guardian. "It's a reminder from those in France who earn and live on very little."

J. G. Shields, Ph.D., professor of French politics and head of French Studies at Aston University in Birmingham, England, said in an interview that the rejection of the Socialists was “unprecedented.” The Independent reported that France’s middle classes and swing voters were irate over tax hikes and the removal of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “tax holiday” for work performed during overtime, while the poor and leftists were outraged by the government’s planned budget cuts.

Europe 1 radio reported that the Socialists were so demoralized by the election that Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault considered resigning, but was talked out of it by colleagues and aides. (Although it may only be a matter of time before Hollande fires him anyway and replaces him with the current interior minister, the more popular Manuel Valls.)

One piece of solace for the Socialists came with the election of Socialist Anne Hidalgo in Paris, making her the capital's first-ever female mayor, succeeding another Socialist, Mayor Bertrand Delanoê. Furthermore, the Socialists retained power in some of the country’s biggest cities including Dijon, Lille, Lyon, Nantes, Rennes and Strasbourg.

The true victor to arise from the elections was the UMP, the party of President Sarkozy, which captured several important cities, including Caen, Toulouse, as well as towns long associated with the left like Belfort, Limoges, Reims, Saint-Etienne, Roubaix, Quimper and Pau. (Limoges, Shields noted, had been under the control of the Left for more than 100 years.)

But, as the Socialist Party wanes and the UMP waxes, what of the third-party FN? Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of FN (and daughter of the party’s notorious founder Jean-Marie) boasted that the results clearly showed that the average Frenchman is in tune with the FN’s anti-immigration, anti-EU message. However, if one looks closer at the results, one finds less reason for Marine to be so happy. For one thing, FN lost mayoral elections in at least two cities where it was favored to win – Avignon and Perpignan, both in the south. In Forbach, in the northeastern part of the country, where FN’s deputy leader, Florian Philippot, himself ran for mayor, the party also came up short.

In addition, it must be remembered that the FN benefited from an all-time record high number of abstentions – nearly two-fifths (38.5 percent) of eligible voters did not even bother to cast a ballot. French media speculated that it was mostly Socialist voters who stayed home, thereby dooming the party’s candidates. Consider that a poll taken for Le Figaro indicated that the UMP and its allies gained 45 percent of all votes cast, followed by 43 percent for the Socialists and its affiliates, followed by only a 7 percent showing for FN. This means, that an overwhelming 93 percent of French voters rejected the FN even with the climate of economic distress.

Thus, Jean-Yves Dormagen, professor of political science at Monpellier University in the south of France, asserted to the Libération newspaper that FN has the publicity but not that much real support among the electorate. "If we look at things objectively, the FN remains a relatively weak force at [the] local level,” he said. “[The party has] taken small or medium-sized towns … and the overall number won is low. … In fact, these victories are the least you would expect for a party that regularly polls between 15 percent and 20 percent of the vote in national elections. The FN has returned to its level in the 1990s."

Dormagen suggested the polls were not about the rising anger exploited by the far-right, but rather about the overwhelmingly disillusionment with the mainstream incumbent Socialists. "It's even more significant that the [Socialists] lost towns where the mayors were well appreciated, where their record was good, and where they had the advantage of being in power already,” he added. “It shows the animosity of electors towards the government, one of the least liked in the Fifth Republic [and current republican constitution of France in place since 1958]."

Shields concurred that FN did not do very well at all, despite all the media attention the party receives. “It [FN] won control of a dozen municipalities – out of nearly 37,000,” he said. ”It won around 1,500 seats across France -- out of nearly 520,000. There are almost 1,000 towns of over 10,000 inhabitants in France -- so the FN took 1 town in 100. This is a very poor return for a party that regularly polls up to 15 percent in national elections – and on that [basis] ought to be taking 1 town in 7.”

Marine Le Pen, who has tried to soften the image of the FN by appearing more modest and moderate in public stances, in stark contrast to her pugnacious father, has made no secret that she will again run for president in 2017. Prior to the poll, she optimistically told Le Monde magazine: "We are at year zero of a big patriotic movement … which is founded on the opposition of the current political class, on the defense of the nation, on the rejection of ultra-capitalism and Europe that is capable of rising above the old political rifts to ask the real questions. The only glass ceiling that remains is in the process of shattering.”

Le Pen, who took over the party from her father in 2011 and got an impressive 17 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in the following year, seeks to build upon what she views as growing acceptance for the FN among ordinary Frenchmen and women. But no matter how much she has tried to “detoxify” the party’s image, the FN remains committed to ending immigration, reducing imports, and leaving the European Union – all of which would render the party as an extremist, and, therefore, unelectable, political organization.

Shields commented that FN’s media coverage far outweighs its actual importance and influence in French political life. “So much of the reporting on the FN in these elections was out of proportion, giving the impression of a party at the gates of power,” he stated. “In reality, the FN’s gains are highly selective and relatively very small. They make a nonsense of Marine Le Pen’s claim that the FN … has ended UMP/[Socialist] domination of politics.” Shields added that even if FN performs well in May’s European parliamentary elections, it will still remain a marginalized force in the European Parliament, obliged to seek its allies among other, and equally ostracized, far-right parties.

He also dismisses Marine Le Pen’s goal of becoming French president within a decade as mere fantasy. “She could get to the second round in 2017, and she would probably do better there than her father’s 18 percent [vote total] in 2002,” he said. “But the idea that she could command the support of an absolute majority of French voters and win is inconceivable.”