by Vincenzo Scarpetta

In an op-ed for The Daily Telegraph, our policy analyst Vincenzo Scarpetta looks at Front National’s historic result in the first round of the French regional elections. He argues that the rather impressive score achieved by Marine Le Pen’s party is yet another sign that voters want to see sweeping change in the way the EU works.

Historic result for Front National in first round of French regional election

The result obtained by Front National in the first round of the French regional election is nothing short of historic. Marine Le Pen’s party finished in the lead, winning nearly 28 per cent of the nationwide vote – its highest score ever. Front National candidates topped the polls in six out of thirteen French mainland regions, outperforming both Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right alliance and President François Hollande’s Socialist Party.

Nothing is decided yet. The second, decisive round of this regional election will take place next Sunday – and voters’ behaviour can change between the two rounds. However, Front National does really look close to a breakthrough. The party has never governed a French region. Securing control of even just one of them would already be an unprecedented achievement.

Significantly, the gains made by Front National cut across all types of regions – from the wealthy French Riviera to rural Burgundy. The industrial Northern region (now merged with Picardy), where Marine Le Pen herself is standing as candidate and won over 40 per cent of the vote in the first round, has been a stronghold of the Left since direct election of regional assemblies in France began in the 1980s.

Generally speaking, France remains a centralised state. Notwithstanding a recent territorial reform that has expanded their competences, French regions continue to have relatively limited powers compared to, for instance, their Spanish counterparts. However, a strong showing in this regional election would allow Le Pen to strengthen her local powerbase with a view to the Presidential election in 2017.

This regional election was indeed the first test after the terrorist attacks in Paris. However, it would be simplistic to see the gains made by Front National as just the fruit of French voters’ knee-jerk reaction to last month’s tragic events. President Hollande saw a rather spectacular rebound in his approval rating in the wake of the attacks. Yet, this did not spare him another pretty disappointing election night.

The reality is that Front National has been on a crescendo for a while. The party was the most voted for in last year’s European Parliament election, and had also made important gains in the departmental elections earlier this year. Ballot after ballot, my view is reinforced that a growing number of French voters are starting to see Front National no longer as just a “protest party” – but rather as a party they would be happy to be governed by, at least at the local level.

The message is clear – Voters wants to see the EU change

There are several reasons behind the surge of Front National – and dissatisfaction with Europe is one of them. According to the European Commission’s latest Eurobarometer survey, only 32 per cent of French trust the EU – compared to 51 per cent who do not. Given that Front National is far from an isolated case – anti-euro, anti-EU and anti-establishment parties are on the rise pretty much everywhere in Europe – one of the key lessons from this French regional election is that sweeping reform of the EU cannot wait any longer.

It is therefore in the interest of Europe as a whole to listen to David Cameron’s EU reform demands.

Remember: in her own words, Le Pen wants France to recover its “territorial, monetary, legislative and economic” sovereignty – in a fashion that effectively would mean the end of the EU entirely. Cameron is bringing to the table a pragmatic third way between “more Europe” and “no Europe” – something other EU leaders can hardly afford to ignore.

Slimming down EU bureaucracy, speeding up single market liberalisation, reducing the burden of EU regulation on businesses, giving groups of national parliaments the power to scrap unnecessary EU laws – these and other changes being proposed by the British Prime Minister can help win back voters’ support by making the EU more efficient and accountable. Conversely, repeating ad nauseam that “more Europe” is the solution to any problem, or that Europe “cannot pander to populists”, carries a significant risk.

If voters are always presented with a binary choice between “more Europe” and “no Europe”, the moment will come when they will choose the latter – essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This French regional election was not the first wake-up call – and will not be the last. Europe would do well to begin paying attention.

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