A bad night for Marine Le Pen, then, in France’s regional elections. Having been ahead in six regions in the first round last Sunday, her Front National appears now to have failed to win one. Cue lots of somewhat contrived jubilation from every right-thinking human on social media.
Tonight does indeed represent a significant blow to Marine Le Pen’s presidential aspirations. Winning control of a region or two would have given FN the legitimacy it craves. The huge boost in voter turn out for the second round shows that, when push comes to shove, the French remain far more likely to come out and oppose her party than support it.
But before liberals everywhere sound too triumphant, it’s worth reconsidering what has just happened. The Front National has forced the socialist party — the party of President François Hollande — to withdraw candidates and ask French lefties to hold their noses and vote for the party of Nicolas Sarkozy. Marine Le Pen pointed this out in her concession speech tonight, saying that she had achieved the ‘total eradication’ of the left. That’s putting it a bit strong. The socialists still appear to have retained five regions. But there can be no denying the Front National is radically changing French politics. In the same elections in 2010, the party won just nine percent of the vote, compared to 28 percent this time. So it's ridiculous to start talking of Le Pen having been 'crushed', as some people are. Prime Minister Manuel Valls was prudent to sound a cautious note in his speech tonight: 'tonight there is no relief, no triumphalism, no message of victory. The danger of the extreme right is not averted.’
In fact, we’ve probably just seen a pre-run of the presidential elections in 2017. Le Pen will come first or second in the first round, then lose in the second round run-off as the liberal-left and the liberal-right rally together to vote against her. In this scenario, she might lose to either the dreaded and much-scorned François Hollande -- if he can somehow improve the French economy in the next year -- or the equally dreaded and much-scorned Nicolas Sarkozy, if he can avoid too much personal scandal in the next few months and secure the leadership of his new-fangled Les Républicains party. This would be a curious repeat of what happened to Marine's father in the 2002 presidential elections, although the Front National has considerably widened its appeal since then.
In July, Jonathan Fenby wrote an interesting piece for the Spectator speculating that Hollande, aka Mr Flanby, could win the next presidential election by winning a second round run-off against Le Pen. It would be extraordinary if so disastrous a leader as Hollande were to be re-elected, yet the strangeness of the French political system means he just might be President in 2022.