France's far-right National Front has been kept at bay - for now
Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30
This was the year France's far-right National Front thought they would rise like they had never before. Not only had the party been steadily gaining ground in recent years, but the confluence of an economy in the doldrums along with two devastating multi-pronged terrorist attacks on Paris all seemed poised to work in its favour. Many French pundits talked of the "normalisation" of the National Front, once considered a dangerous fringe group, under its leader Marine Le Pen who has tried to present a less extreme image than her father, Jean-Marie, who founded the party.
Even so, France's political mainstream was shaken last month when the National Front led voting across the country in the first round of regional elections.
In some districts of France's second city Marseille, where I live, the party polled over 40pc in the initial round.
That the far-right could do so well in one of France's most diverse cities, home to some of its largest Muslim and Jewish populations, was chilling.
In the end, the National Front failed to secure a single seat in any of the country's 13 regions after the Socialist Party pulled out and called on its supporters to vote for centre-right candidates in a desperate attempt to prevent Le Pen and her party from gaining power.
Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, issued a stark warning that "civil war" would erupt should the National Front sweep to victory in regional elections which are admittedly more important in terms of what they symbolise than their actual impact on policy.
Given the National Front was shut out only due to tactical voting, there should be no complacency about the far-right party and its growing constituency.
In its target regions in the north and the south, the National Front's share of the vote was higher in the second round than in the first, but not enough for a majority. Its failure to win a seat aside, the party has still achieved its best-ever national result with 28pc and first place in the first round.
The National Front vote in today's France is a complicated one which often challenges assumptions. In Marseille, some residents of second or third generation north African background have told me they vote for the party because of its anti-immigration platform. They say they don't want any more immigration from Francophone sub-Saharan Africa.
A disturbing element of the National Front's initial success in the regional elections across the country last month was its increasing popularity among youth disillusioned with mainstream politics. According to one poll, the National Front got the most votes in the first round among those aged 18 to 30.
Thirty-four percent cast ballots for the far-right party compared to 22pc for the centre-left Socialists and their allies, and 19pc for France's centre-right.
The respondents said they were most concerned about joblessness, security, and immigration and they liked the National Front's uncompromising rhetoric on these issues.
The party actively targets this younger demographic, with Marine Le Pen's 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen a key part of its strategy.
Last month Marechal-Le Pen hoped to win a seat in the southern region which includes Marseille but also some of France's wealthiest enclaves along the Riviera. In the end, she polled 44pc of the vote but was edged out by a centre-right candidate.
The younger Le Pen, who is being groomed as the future face of the party, has shown a blunter, more conservative streak than her aunt. She was a prominent figure in the demonstrations against gay marriage in France in 2013 and has called for cutting funding for family-planning centres.
In a pre-election speech in Toulon, another diverse city not far from Marseille, she prompted controversy when she said: "We are not a land of Islam... In our country, we don't wear djellaba [a traditional Arab robe] clothing, we don't wear a veil, and we don't impose cathedral-sized mosques."
Such rhetoric has seeped into Marseille, where the National Front has mounted legal challenges against long-stalled plans to open the city's first purpose-built mosque.
Earlier this year, the party leafleted my neighbourhood, a sleepy district which has never had any National Front presence. Trying to exploit what it called "the post-Charlie context" - a reference to the deadly attacks on the 'Charlie Hebdo' satirical magazine in Paris in January - the leaflet bizarrely accused the party's political rivals of secretly funding an underground mosque frequented by ultra-conservative Muslims.
I saw some of my neighbours throw the leaflet in the bin with disgust. That may still be the reaction of most French voters to the National Front but its strong showing in the first round of the recent regional elections should give the country's mainstream politicians serious pause for thought.