Led by Marine Le Pen, the Front National (FN) won around 30 percent of the votes in France's regional elections on Sunday. That makes the party, which most observers consider to be far-right extremist, the clear winner—over Nicolas Sarkozy's Conservative Coalition (27 percent) and the Left Alliance led by French president Francois Hollande (23 percent).
These elections are not France's last word, though: This was only the first round, and less than half of French voters bothered to show up to the polls. It's therefore not unlikely that the FN's opponents will rally their troops and combine their forces in the second round of elections this coming weekend—just to prevent the Front from carrying the victory home. This is pretty much what happened in the presidential elections of 2002.
Still, this first victory has given people all over Europe a jolt. Some observers already imagine a future in which Marine Le Pen becomes president of France and subsequently engineers France's withdrawal from the European Union of which the country is a founding member. But how did we get this far? What made 30 percent of French people vote for a party whose founder thinks that Auschwitz is "a detail of history"?
To find out, I got in touch with my colleague, Julien Morel, who is the Editor in Chief of VICE France.
VICE: How much of the outcome of the election was influenced by the recent terror attacks in Paris?
Julien Morel: It's hard to know precisely as there's no numbers, but I would say: Yes, it did influence the results. If you take polls before and after the Paris attacks, I'm sure you will see a rise in attitudes of the "I'm gonna vote for the far right because of those terrorists" sort. But the FN's rise in France actually began 30 years ago. In the early 1980s, there was a cover of Liberation—one of the biggest left-wing newspapers here—with Jean-Marie Le Pen on.
The first factor of the recent and unprecedented ascent of the FN is, of course, the global financial crisis. It strongly impacted Northern France, which is the industrial part of the country. Those regions used to vote for the Socialist and the Communist Parties, but now they are all FN. Secondly, people generally feel disenfranchised with traditional left or right wing values. The third factor is abstention: Yesterday, half of French citizens didn't vote.
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The FN is usually described as "far right" or "extremist" by international media. Would you say this label is justified, and if so, what are some FN positions that justify it?
Of course it's justified. Historically, the party was created by a guy who tortured Arab combatants during the War in Algeria: Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the 1980s, the same guy said that "gas chambers are a detail of our history." It's a party that actively fights against the building of mosques. It's a party whose demonstrations are run by skinheads.
His daughter, Marine Le Pen, has tried hard to make the party look acceptable in the last five years by firing some of the better-known racists of the party—her father included—and hiring some new heads who are openly gay. But in the end, it's the same narrative: Islam is a problem, the suburbs of Paris are a problem, the left and the right are the same, and voting in the FN is France's only real chance of change.
Has the party modified any of its positions since it's gained a wider following? Is old Le Pen falling out of favor a good sign?
Not really. It's more about making the party look less dangerous and politically correct—that's all. Because in the 1980s and the 1990s in France, they were clearly seen as neo-Nazis. Marine, because she's a woman and because of her more open-minded ideas in terms of the economy and homosexuality, is way more acceptable than a one-eyed guy who used to beat up Arabs and used to call himself "the French Ronald Reagan." So I don't see this as a good sign at all: Marine is their best chance of getting into power. They took it, and if you look at the results, it's working.
Do Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen still talk to their father?
Judging by their respective Twitter accounts, I'd say it would be impossible. The old man is full of anger and most of it is directed at his daughter who fired him from the party earlier this year. He's a ranting old man now—saying the most racist, nonsensical things you can imagine in order to embarrass Marine. Which, actually, is quite hilarious.
Has the FN's ascent to power led to a polarization of French society? Is this a country versus city thing?
More or less. But it's not that simple and there are many exceptions. If you take Brittany for instance, those guys voted left like they always did, even if they were probably affected the most by the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the Provence region in the South East, which has been an NF stronghold for the last 20 years, is full of cities: Cannes, Nice, Toulon, Marseille. That is a financially strong area, largely because of tourism.
What would the FN's ascent mean for Europe?
Firstly, the EU as we built it doesn't work like we thought it would. Secondly, every financial crisis throughout history has led to political catastrophes or wars—which is what's happening now. The best way to stop the rise of the far right in the continent would be to stop the crisis. For instance, let's maybe not destroy Greece, but try to work together to find a solution that benefits us all.
Is there a real chance of Marine Le Pen winning the next presidential election?
I don't think so, no. Everyone will vote against the FN on the second round—just like in 2002. We're not that dumb. But the real problem here, and it's hard to explain exactly how bad it is, is that Nicolas Sarkozy might become our president for the second time in 2017. You can almost smell it already. It's like having Bush again—or Reagan. A nightmare, really. And a big shame for France. Weren't we supposed to be the great nation of human rights, resistance, and literature or something?
What do you think could or should be done to combat the rise of the far right in France?
First, President Hollande should actively think of making a proper left wing program before he leaves. It's not gonna happen, I'm quite sure, but if he achieved say 40 percent of what people expected when they voted for him in 2012, maybe the left can make sense again. But he's too busy throwing bombs at the Islamic State at the moment.
Secondly, he needs to find a way to speak to young people. The number of kids who voted for the FN yesterday is insane—more than one in three of people aged between 18 and 30. If the left could get young people interested in politics again, the future wouldn't seem so grey. For now though, our future seems to be Sarkozy.