The French will head to the polls in a regional election set in a tense atmosphere. Coming less than a month after the November 13 terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead, the elections are yet another test for the FN and Marine Le Pen. Polls are favorable and it seems that the party has seen a boost in the aftermath of the attacks, seizing on anti-Muslim sentiment and fears that terrorists are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Europe. Times for President François Hollande and the socialists are to remain tough and the new Republicans (formerly UMP) will struggle to deal with the FN threat on its right flank. Here are five things to look out for during the upcoming two rounds of voting in the newly-formed regions.
- The FN score in the north
Polls show that Marine Le Pen is on track to win the race in the northernmost Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie. Again and again polls show the FN in front of both the PS and LR. A FN victory in the north would follow the trend of the far-right encroaching on formerly socialist strongholds (a strategy of UKIP in the UK). One of the two regions where a FN victory is most within reach, it will be a real test for Le Pen on her strategy of establishing the party locally before taking on the presidential elections in 2017.
- The FN score in the south
On the other side of the county, in the southeastern PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) region, it is Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who will be at the head of the party list. Although both representing the FN, the recent infighting in the Le Pen family and the public rift between Marine and her father, founder of the FN, shows a divide, with Marion seen as taking the senior Le Pen’s side. Although the very public spat between Marine and her father damaged the party’s image, the party seems to have more or less rallies around Marine, who has led it to unprecedented success in the past few years. PACA has long been a region where the FN does well and it is expected to carry the region this Sunday.
- The FN score everywhere else
It is clear that the top story of the election will be just how well the FN does. Recent polls have the party contesting at least six regions, with the two mentioned above being the most likely wins. However, the party is also a strong contender in Normandy and in the east. As new opinion polls are released, it is becoming certain that the party has benefited from the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, boosting a party that was already doing well in the polls. It is yet another test for Marine as to how far she can bring the party before the 2017 presidential elections, the clear end-goal of herself and the party as a whole.
- Will there be any good news for the socialists?
Good news came to President Hollande this week as an opinion poll showed his favorability ratings have jumped to 50%, quite a leap from the record lows in the lower 20s earlier this year. Although his “war” rhetoric following the attacks has been divisive, and there are grumblings about the extend of the state of emergency, it has clearly resonated with a large part of the population. The question now becomes is this jump in favorability enough to help the PS in any of the regional contests? Prior to reconfiguring the regional map, the socialists controlled nearly every region in France. Those days should come to an abrupt end this December The party will be hoping that an improvement in the opinion about the government may be able to help it clinch a battleground region or two from the right.
- Will there be a “republican front”
Previously, the PS and the UMP (now the Republicans or LR), joined forces when confronted with a FN candidate in the second round. It is unclear if this will be the case in the second round of the regional elections on December 13. The issue evenly splits French public opinion as well as opinion within the parties themselves. Times have also changed in French politics and the FN is not such an outsider party anymore. It is consistently doing well in the polls, often coming first, and several polling outlets see Marine Le Pen making it to the second round in the 2017 presidential elections. Over the past few years, Marine has established the party locally across the country, particularly in the north and southeast, and continues to build a solid support base. As more and more people support the party, less see it as an extreme option that requires a republican front to fight back down. Furthermore, in many cases, even a combined center-right/center-left coalition is not enough to beat the FN.
All eyes are on the FN this December to see how far it can go in these regional elections. As the Republicans and the socialists try their best to hold back the right-wing party, more and more people are attracted to its hardline message against foreigners and Islam. The country has been incredibly shaken by the November 13 attacks and now security and terrorism is the top issue in the election. Although Hollande has received a short-term boost to his popularity, it is most likely not enough to save the socialists from yet another defeat. If anything, the likely outcome of this election will be the continued rise of Marine Le Pen and her party.