Today might be the day the Front National got nearer than it’s ever been to controlling more than a town hall – but not enough.
The far-right party came top in six of France’s 13 regions, gaining 28 per cent of the vote overall, but latest polling shows that this second round vote for the FN in the north and south has become much tighter.
That’s not to deny the party its huge rise in popularity in the past few years. In last year’s European Parliament elections, it came first.
Today’s election will tell us that little bit more about the party’s chances in France’s presidential elections, under eighteen months away.
Another rise in the polls may be likely by then, but a Le Pen presidency is realistically off the cards. Instead it will be a race between the left and the right – both parties which have their own problems.
President François Hollande has pledged to stand only if unemployment goes down. For the moment, it’s a far from optimistic picture. October saw the highest monthly rise since 2013 – at 10.8 per cent.
In a continent where unemployment overall is in decline, France has been picking up. The figure was 1.2 per cent up on the month before, and 3.7 per cent greater compared with figures from the year before.
President Hollande’s popularity has been boosted by his leadership after the 13th November attacks – symbolically a month ago today. It’s always hard to say how much national politics sways opinion at a local level, but it’s an easy guess that France’s turbulent year will be playing on the minds of many voters.
And for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, he will need to battle a primary for leadership of the party into the elections, with rival Alain Juppé widely expected to beat him.
Sarkozy will also have to prove that his Republican Party isn’t just chasing the coat tails of the FN and swinging to the far right with populist policies.
Security issues have clearly been high on the list of voters’ worries, but with a government fighting so hard to reform France’s economy and with results so hard to see, economic recovery will be a tough sell for Hollande’s government going forward.
Europe has seen a sea change in its politics since the beginning of the financial crisis. Today will be proof – if more were needed – that France is a three party state, with Marine Le Pen rubbing shoulders with Sarkozy and Hollande a for a while longer yet.
While she may not claim seats and tangible power, the worries of Front National voters – French identity, France’s place in Europe, security issues and economic uncertainty – are problems that simply can’t go unnoticed if France’s politics wants to remain relevant – and not fearful of the all too real far right invasion.
Between now and spring 2017, there can be no more complacency as no party can really claim victory from these elections.