France's far-right National Front party (FN) scored gains Sunday in the first round of by-elections to fill a parliamentary seat left vacant by socialist deputy Pierre Moscovici, recently appointed as the European Union's financial commissioner.
FN candidate Sophie Montel, who won 32.6 percent of the vote, will face Socialist Party (PS) candidate Frédéric Barbier, who came in second with 28.85 percent of the vote, in a two-candidate runoff next Sunday.
Meanwhile, France's center-right Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) was knocked out of the race in the first round, after securing only 26.54 percent.
All eyes were on the election that was held in the small eastern 4th constituency within the district Doubs on Sunday, with many considering it the first major test of the French electorate's mood since the deadly Paris terror attacks that left 17 dead in early January. Speculation has been rife over which way the country would vote following the nationwide show of unity that followed the shootings.
On January 11, nearly 4 million people gathered throughout the country under the banner of freedom of expression and in solidarity with the victims of the attacks. But three weeks later, the democratic fervor has started to show cracks, with attacks against Muslims and mosques and terrorism-related anxiety within the educational system.
Pascal Perrineau, an expert on FN campaign strategy who teaches at the Paris political science university SciencesPo, warned against reading too much into Sunday's ballot results. Speaking to VICE News on Monday, Perrineau explained that in each French constituency, the vote is influenced by a unique social and historical context. According to Perrineau, the FN's preliminary victory in the economically depressed 4th constituency — one of five legislative voting areas in the Doubs district — does not necessarily indicate the mood of the wider French electorate.
"The 4th constituency of the Doubs is a working class area, with twice as many blue-collar workers as the national average," said Perrineau, noting that the Franche-Comté region — which counts four districts, including the Doubs — has experienced industrial decline and survived an auto-industry crisis, differentiating it from many other regions in the country.
While Doubs voters may not be speaking for the whole of France, Perrineau points out that less than a month after the nationwide solidarity rallies "the 'January 11 effect' has had a much weaker influence on the polls than anticipated."
A high abstention rate of about 60 percent on Sunday — made worse by heavy snowfall — is also thought to have hurt the center-right UMP and the socialist party, even as socialist president François Hollande enjoys his highest popularity ratings in two years following his handling of the attacks.
Meanwhile, the FN seems to have been left unscathed by the two latest scandals to rock the party. The political group landed in hot water two weeks ago when the FN's former advisor Aymeric Chauprade uploaded a video titled "France is at war" to YouTube, which alluded to "a fifth column" of Islamist militants operating on French soil. Chauprade, who was also a member of the European Parliament in Brussels was later sacked from both posts by party leader Marine Le Pen.
The following week, one of Le Pen's financial backers, Frédéric Chatillon, was charged with fraud for allegedly misappropriating funds to finance various FN campaigns in 2012. According to French daily Le Monde, Chatillon embezzled close to 10 million euros. Perrineau explained that these scandals have not put voters off.
"Voters don't care about party machinations," he said. "They're not at all interested in all that. They voted [this way] because of the economic and social malaise, because they are worried. What's happening within the parties does not massively influence their choice. It's as though the main pre-January 11 issues are still on the electorate's mind."
Front runner Montel has been a member of the European parliament since 2014, and of the FN's political bureau since 2003. She has stood for election in this traditionally leftist region since 2002. In 1996, when she was a city councillor in the regional capital Besançon, Montel had publicly defended former FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's inflammatory comments on race inequality.
"Observing that there are inequalities between civilizations and between individuals who are wonderfully different, does not go against the concept of human nature," she said in a statement posted on the city's website.
The National Front has been slowly making its way into the political mainstream since the 1998 regional elections, when the party qualified for the second round in several districts. At the time, the opposition UMP party had been torn over how to best repel the FN advance. Some UMP officials had called for right-wing voters to back socialist candidates, to try and "block" the FN. Others had called for abstention — a strategy mockingly described as "the neither/nor" tactic.
The UMP has been left similarly divided over how best to deal with the FN's political ambitions in the wake of January's terror attacks. Bruno Le Maire who lost the UMP leadership election to former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2014, has spoken against forming a political "front" against the FN for fear of alienating FN voters. This recommendation was echoed by Sarkozy's former speech writer Henri Guaino. "After January 11, we may have believed we were living in a different world," Guiano told the media outlet France Inter. "Well no, the state of French society is worrying, and our fellow citizens are still as angry as ever."
UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy has come under fire for adopting the "neither/nor" strategy, and refusing to endorse a candidate, even as UMP vice-president Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told voters she favored the socialist candidate. The UMP is set to meet on Tuesday to determine the party's official position.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho