PARIS (Reuters) - It’s hard to imagine a more favourable year for the French National Front: unemployment at an 18-year high, euro-scepticism on the rise, security and immigration fears heightened by deadly armed attacks on the streets of Paris.
So there was little wonder that in a first round of voting in regional elections on Dec. 6 Marine Le Pen’s far-right party outstripped its mainstream rivals, notching up the biggest win of its history.
But by Monday, after a second round of voting, it was as far away from power as ever - tactical voting by the ruling Socialists and withdrawals of their candidates to favour the centre in crucial regions scuppering her and her niece’s chances of securing footholds in regional power.
Will the frustration of that failure start a drift away from the FN and doom Le Pen’s presidential ambitions in 2017 ? Or could it fuel enough anger over the party’s exclusion from mainstream politics to propel her through the “glass ceiling” she complains about?
For many, the result was proof of the old French adage that people vote with their hearts in the first round and with their heads in the second. It bodes ill for Le Pen’s chances in 2017, they say.
The sort of tactical voting the Socialists used - pulling out to leave their centre rivals with a clear field to defeat the FN - is baked into the presidential election, where the rules dictate a run-off between the two top scoring candidates from the first round.
“The FN is up against a wall, especially in the presidentials,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on the far right. “It’s a great first round party, but it hits a wall in the second. If it can’t get out of this dead end, it can’t win power.”
Others think that the FN could discover more momentum yet.
The party scored 42 and 45 percent respectively in its two strongest regions - the northern industrial rust-belt, where Le Pen led the FN ticket, and the southeastern sun belt, where Arab immigrants and former French colonists live uneasily cheek-by-jowl, and where her niece Marion Marechal Le-Pen ran.
In both regions there was only one alternative in the run-off - ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative Republicans.
President Francois Hollande’s Socialists withdrew in both areas and urged supporters to back the centre, aiming to take the moral high ground by sacrificing seats to freeze out a party it says is racist and extremist.
But that approach has its risks.
“This feeds into one of the FN’s main campaign messages - that the notions of left and right are essentially meaningless and that the two-round system produces a cosy, lazy, political centre which can afford to ignore the needs of millions of French citizens,” said Charles Lichfield of Eurasia group.
With 27.7 percent in the first round - more than either of the other two main parties - the FN gained ground in its social and geographic heartlands, but also in the west, around Paris, and among the young, where it has struggled in the past.
“The main feature of this presidential term (since 2012) has been the rise of the National Front, which establishes deeper roots election after election,” said Frédéric Dabi, deputy head of pollsters Ifop. “Each time they get a little closer.”
POPULISTS SET AGENDA WITHOUT POWER
In many ways, Le Pen can argue that her party, as with several other like-minded eurosceptic parties in Europe, has set the pace of the political agenda - even if it has not won power.
Despite strong scores in European Parliament and local elections, right-wing populist parties with similar anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and anti-European ideologies have failed to break through to national power, except as junior partners with little sway on policy as in Finland and Norway.
In Britain and Germany, the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party and Alternative for Germany remain fringe groups.
Yet even without reaching the top rung, populists have forced mainstream conservatives to take a more restrictive line on immigration and multiculturalism, and resist further European integration.
In France, the FN’s surge has ignited fierce debate on the centre about whether to take a harder line against immigration, public displays of Islam and the EU’s open-border policy - as Sarkozy espouses - to win back voters lost to Le Pen, or to draw a clear dividing line and cleave to the centre, as his main challenger Alain Juppe advocates.
Away from the limelight on its three main target regions, the FN also gained ground in three-way races in rural regions and declining industrial areas blighted by high unemployment.
The fragility of France’s economic recovery is another factor boosting Le Pen. Unemployment reached its highest level for 18 years in the third quarter, well above 10 percent and higher than the eurozone average for the first time since 2007.
Growth has not been strong enough to generate the jobs Hollande has promised ever since his election in 2012, and an expected decline in the jobless total next year may be too little, too late to create any “feel good factor” for him.
ARITHMETIC AND PSYCHOLOGY
Yet electoral arithmetic and psychology still work against Le Pen and the party she has led since she took over from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011.
Even if, as Sunday’s score shows, she has a good chance of getting through to the second round of the presidential election, as her father did in 2002, polls suggest she would be trounced by Sarkozy and especially Juppe, and would lose by a narrower margin to Hollande.
Sociologist Sylvain Crépon says the angry outsider appeal that is Le Pen’s strength is also her weakness, and there is little chance she can shake off a 70 percent unpopularity rating without losing those who support her.
“Her get-out-of-the-euro policy is something that closes the door to any alliance (and) she goes over the top in her attacks on the elite and on immigration,” he said.
To change that, though, he said, “would risk losing her distinguishing feature.”
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander and Matthias Blamont; Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by Paul Taylor and Richard Balmforth
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