L’ennui of France’s regional voters boosting the far right

National Front eyes big gains in French regional electionsFar-right girl wonder takes National Front to new heights

Lyon: This city is the second-largest in the country. As Christmas approaches, the streets are only half as full as they should be. The Lights Festival, during which people cover the city with candles, has been cancelled. All out of fear of a terrorist attack.

But this is not what makes people vote for the far right.

“It’s been going on for years”, says a local, “each time more people vote for Le Pen out of disappointment – they say ‘we tried both left and right, so now we should try Front National’.”

The far-right National Front (FN), led first by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and since 2011 by his daughter, Marine Le Pen, has been slowly growing for decades yet it has never managed to seriously challenge France’s over-centralised institutions. In first round regional elections earlier this month, the National Front won six regions from 13, with the party’s highest vote ever at 28 per cent. The second round of voting on Sunday could see the party increase its vote even further.

“I voted for Hollande against Sarkozy”, says another Lyon resident, “now I want to vote against Hollande but still not for Sarkozy, so who’s left?”

Both Socialist French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, were granted a five-year term with almost absolute power. There are no mid-term elections in France. The regional vote is the only opportunity French people get to voice their discontent, even if it has nothing to do with local politics.

In 2010, Mr Sarkozy saw every region but one falling into the hands of his Socialist opponents. This year, it is the turn of the left to feel a landslide against them.

But why should presidents care? No one in France has been able to exactly tell me what regions are about. They purportedly manage roads and high schools – but they cannot plan a new highway or change the educational program; they merely take care of maintenance.

Even if one of the Le Pen women – Marine and her niece Marion – managed to take over a region, it would give them very little power. “In any other country,” says an entrepreneur from Lyon, Marc, “such a high vote for the far right would have resulted in a sizeable portion of MPs, or a strong local far-right fiefdom, forcing moderate parties to act. But in France, centralism and presidentialism allows them not to care, so the Front National still grows.”

After his 2010 defeat, Mr Sarkozy declared he would not be making any changes to his policies. Both Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy  have gone through their presidencies with the same disregard for reality checks. They and their parties can cynically bet that even if the FN made it to the second round of a presidential poll, there would still be a majority of voters against them.

This certainty has allowed the French political class to fossilise inside its ivory tower, which in turn only feeds the FN’s anti-establishment platform. A teacher from Brittany, Loic Pasco, told me: “Sarkozy was already a major cabinet member in the mid-’90s, when Obama was an obscure lawyer. Our major leftist politicians were already ministers before the end of the USSR. Only in a cheesy movie would you imagine Gorbachev, John Major and Bill Clinton succeeding Putin, Cameron and Obama, but in France it is just normal.”

In 2002, the first round of the presidential election saw a majority of votes for the many leftist candidates. But because only the two biggest scores make it to the run-off vote, the second round pitted the conservative Jacques Chirac against FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and predecessor. Two weeks later, Mr Chirac was elected – mostly by people who had voted against him in the first round.

And still, with such a tenuous mandate, he was given the keys to the country for the next five years.

The French system of supreme presidential power was originally tempered by a shorter mandate for the parliament. Since 2002, however, the parliament is elected one month after the president and for the same duration, guaranteeing its docility for the whole presidency amd making the French republic a fixed-term tyranny.

“You don’t understand”, a student in Paris tells me. “We have an American-style presidential system”.

I remind her that the White House has to cope with a mid-term Congressional election, and that the loss of a state governorship would be seen as a massive blow.

Everyone in France hates Paris. The foreign vision of their capital as a romantic city would seem completely weird to many French people, who see the city as an overpriced, overpopulated, polluted and globalised hellhole. In southern France, the word “Parisian” is the worst insult you can utter.

In the south, I meet a couple made up of one local and one Parisian.

“They are insufferable”, says the southerner, Octave, “foreigners hate French people because they see Paris first.”

His Parisian boyfriend, Jean-Paul, answers: “People here [in the south] are just loud and don’t do anything! It’s no surprise that [the south] has the highest rate of far-rightists in the country.”

This election is the first after regions were merged to reduce their number from 22 to 13 – a process undertaken without any local debate, except over what kind of hyphenated name the new regions should wear.

Another Lyon resident complains: “Why can’t we decide our own local borders ourselves?” He does not even know the name of his regional candidates.

The only local power that bears significance to French people are city councils. In a small town bordering Normandy, a radical-left majority has maintained itself in the city hall for decades, even though its townspeople vote very differently in other elections: last weekend, the FN topped the ballot there.

“City councils are very close to people”, says a young city councillor, Denis Boure, “but the government wants to deprive us of most of our powers to give them to a new structure that would gather several towns.”

This reform of city councils will again be decided by Paris, with no input from the cities themselves. “As if this country needed more centralism! They do not realise how far they are from people – it is no surprise that [Marine] Le Pen is so successful.”

But the real challenge will be the presidential race next year. “What if this time the second round sees Le Pen opposed to a leftist candidate?” I hear in Lyon. “What if rightist voters vote for her anyway?”

It would take that much of a ruction to break the hold of France’s centralist trance.

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