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by  Vincenzo Scarpetta

A new poll shows that, despite winning over 40% of the vote in the first round of the French regional elections, Front National leader Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen would both be beaten in the second round in the two regions where they are standing as candidates. This follows the Socialist Party’s decision to pull its candidates out of the second round in both regions. Open Europe’s Vincenzo Scarpetta looks ahead to the second round of what could be a watershed election for French politics.

Mainstream parties disagree on response to Front National’s historic result

The political fallout from the historic result obtained by Front National in the first round of the French regional elections (which I analysed in this piece for The Daily Telegraph) has so far been extremely interesting to watch. This is largely due to the fact that the two mainstream parties, President François Hollande’s Socialist Party and Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains, have been in clear disagreement over the strategy to follow in the second round – which will take place on Sunday.

In line with what he had been saying throughout the election campaign, Sarkozy has rejected any tactical alliance with the left to stop Front National securing control of French regions. Nonetheless, the Socialist Party has decided to unilaterally pull its candidates out of the second round in the PACA (South-East) and the Northern regions. In addition, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has openly urged Socialist voters to back the candidates from Sarkozy’s centre-right alliance in both regions.

As I explained here, these two regions were always going to be the highlight of this election. Marine Le Pen herself is standing as regional president candidate in the Northern region. Her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is running in PACA. Crucially, both won over 40% of the vote in the first round last Sunday – making these two regions the most likely for Front National to win.

However, according to this new TNS Sofres poll published by Le Figaro this morning, both Marine and her niece would be beaten in the second round.
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The poll shows that, absent the Socialist candidates, the overwhelming majority of left-wing voters would coalesce around Sarkozy’s centre-right ticket. In other words, the Socialist Party’s move would pay off.

Voters’ behaviour can indeed change between the first and the second round, but a defeat for Front National in either region would still be somewhat surprising – given the gap the two Le Pen had managed to put between themselves and their rivals. Should such an outcome materialise, it is easy to see the media jumping all over what would be reported as a huge disappointment for Front National.

Even a worse than expected result is unlikely to derail Front National

I would be less categorical, however.

First, Front National is potentially on course to win elsewhere too – particularly the Eastern region, where Marine Le Pen’s ‘number two’ Florian Philippot finished in the lead in the first round and where, in spite of pressure from the party’s leadership, the Socialist candidate Jean-Pierre Masseret has refused to withdraw from the second round. Given that Front National has never governed a French region, securing control of even just one of them would already be an unprecedented result.

Second, the strategy of faire barrage (put up a barrier) – whereby the two mainstream parties join forces to stop Front National winning – might help keep Le Pen’s party out of power in one more election, but is by no means a lasting option. Sarkozy quite clearly rejects it, which already undermines its effectiveness. Significantly, the former French President said earlier this week that voting Front National “is not voting against the Republic and is not immoral”.

Most importantly, such a strategy ultimately plays into Marine Le Pen’s hands in the longer term – as it provides the leader of Front National with extra ammunition to claim that the old parties “are all the same”. It also adds weight to her claim that she is fighting against the establishment which is trying to rig elections against her party – something which could attract further voters disillusioned with politics and politicians.

Irrespective of the outcome on Sunday, the French political establishment would do well to start focusing its efforts on substantive reform – both at the domestic and the European level. Otherwise, an increasing number of French voters could be persuaded by Marine Le Pen that the ruling political élite is putting self-preservation before the country’s general interest.