AAt 4 a.m. on weekdays, Isabelle often thought of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. An airport worker in her fifties, she made a pre-dawn trip along the French Riviera and spent it fearing that her pension was not enough, that crime was on the rise. She began to believe in the far right’s promise to give French people “national priority” over foreigners in terms of employment, housing and social protection, driven by her feeling that “immigrants” seemed to do better. what.
“Emmanuel Macron cares more about foreign policy than the struggles of the French, but Le Pen, a lawyer and mother of three, understands French workers,” she said. For decades, Isabelle voted for the majority right, but not in the next regional elections. “I have become one of those women who once voted Nicolas Sarkozy and who now vote Marine Le Pen,” she shrugged.
The rise of the far right dominates this month’s regional elections in France. Le Pen is reaching out to traditional center-right voters and calling the battle a launching pad for her third presidential candidacy next spring, when she could reach the final round again against Macron.
“There is a kind of snowball effect,” said Stewart Chau, sociologist and consultant with Viavoice pollsters. “Marine Le Pen has not changed register or softened its main ideas. The social context in France allows it to benefit from the deep anchoring of its traditional themes in public opinion for six years: the feeling of insecurity and delinquency, a feeling of decline and social inequality, and its link with immigration, Europe and globalization. The Covid crisis has reinforced the idea of living in anxious times, the need for protection and national sovereignty.
“The more other parties put Le Pen at the very center of the political debate by focusing on what scores she can achieve and how they can bring those scores down – and the more other parties get hold of her issues – the more they normalize her left. “
Taking control of a French region would be a political earthquake for Le Pen’s anti-immigration nationalist party, giving it potential new credibility. The Rassemblement National (RN), renamed Front National by the former parachutist father of Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen, almost 50 years ago, manages a dozen town halls across France, but it has never run a French region, where budgets run into billions and responsibilities include high schools and transport. In the past, tactical voting – often with the withdrawal of the left to allow the right to “stop the peril of the far right” – has always limited the party’s regional scores.
But in the south of France, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (Paca) region, which stretches from the posh villas of the Côte d’Azur to the poorer villages of Vaucluse and the HLM housing estates of Marseille, is considered like a political laboratory for Le Pen. Polls show that a Le Pen party’s second round victory in Paca is possible and that far-right regional representatives could stand on the red carpet at the Cannes film festival next month, in a public relations nightmare for the government.
To win the region, Le Pen’s party must strongly target traditional right-wing voters. The Jean Jaurès Foundation think tank recently warned that while a presidential victory for Le Pen in 2022 remains unlikely, it could happen, depending on whether she manages one of the three factors.
First of all, Le Pen needed to convince a large number of center-right voters. Second, her PR campaign to ‘detoxify’ her party’s image and move it away from its distorted connotations of the past should be so successful that mainstream voters no longer see her as a danger and don’t care to vote tactically. to stop his. Finally, Macron should be viewed with the same general level of mistrust as Le Pen herself for voters to refuse to vote for him.
Those factors are not yet aligned, but the Paca region – where the main concerns of voters are Le Pen’s key themes of crime and immigration – is being examined as a litmus test. Across France, the proportion of people who see Le Pen’s party as a danger to democracy has fallen to 49%. There are more and more people on the traditional right who have a positive view of Le Pen. In an unusual move, Macron’s party has already withdrawn from the regional Paca race and aligned with the right in an attempt to stop Le Pen.
“This election is a test,” said Thierry Mariani, regional candidate for Le Pen, after greeting fishermen applauding at a market stall in Cannes. “Paca is unique because the [traditional right] The Republicans teamed up with Emmanuel Macron against us. If they lose, it would show that Macron, even after aligning himself with the others, is in big trouble. This would show that the Republicans no longer have a political line and that Macron’s La République en Marche has failed to anchor itself in base France.
Mariani, 62, who was a government minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, is the public face of Le Pen’s desire to poach mainstream figures. He created his own section of far-right MPs and then left ship to be elected to the European Parliament with Le Pen’s group in 2019.
Mariani grew up in northern Vaucluse, where he conducted an opera festival, and says his long political career means he cannot be considered “dangerous”. He claims Sarkozy didn’t go far enough after his controversial 2005 comments about cleaning up crime in multiracial suburbs with a feed pipe. “Our problem was that we never plugged in the hose,” he said.
Cannes, the bastion of the old traditional Republicans right, is not Le Pen’s usual territory. Its right-wing mayor, defender of the 2016 ban on “Burkinis” on the beaches of the Côte d’Azur, was recently re-elected with 88% of the vote. But along the coast between Cannes and Nice, far-right canvassers said people were softening their thoughts.
“Before, we had to put posters under cover of the night and change them a lot because they were vandalized,” says Gabriel Tomatis, a 22-year-old history student from Nice who joined the party at 17. put them in broad daylight and people stop to congratulate us.
He said the membership of local youth in the Alpes-Maritimes region had increased in recent months. “In my student union, I see more interest in Le Pen, especially with the difficulties encountered by students since the Covid. “
Le Pen is currently appealing to voters increasingly worried about violence and delinquency. She linked the crime to “massive and unregulated immigration”, saying France faces “chaos”.
While the left retorts that this is statistically wrong, the far right has been spurred on by the infiltration of Le Pen’s language into the mainstream. Macron’s Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin, speaking of criminality, warned against “the growing savagery of a part of French society”.
At the Cannes flea market, Paul, 83, got up at 5 am to come by car from Nice to exhibit his stall of old cutlery. He was voting for the traditional right, but now he would choose Le Pen. With very few tourists due to the Covid, times were tough. He sometimes only earned € 10-15 (£ 8-12) at the flea market, barely covering gasoline costs. Her pension was 700 € per month. “There is a great economic crisis ahead,” he said. “Crime is on the rise, there are not enough police officers. People around me say to me: Why not try Le Pen?
Christel, 73, a former tour operator and longtime voter for Sarkozy’s party, said she would never choose Le Pen for president. But for the regional elections, she was open-minded. “I am disappointed with the policy and I feel myself becoming more radical,” she said.
Christèle Lagier, lecturer in politics at the University of Avignon, described the southern supporters of the RN on the right as having jobs where “they do not have a great purchasing power, but they still work, pay. taxes and feel that the social redistribution system is ‘not working to their advantage’. She said RN voters felt they were not receiving the same benefits as others and – in Le Pen’s rhetoric – that they were not receiving as much as immigrant populations.
Christophe Castaner, Macron’s key figure in the south, recently called the RN’s anti-immigration rhetoric bogus and “anti-republican”, saying it was a “racist party”, with historic beliefs for anti-Semitism and funded from abroad.
In Cannes, Jean-Luc, a partner in an architectural firm, who has always voted for the traditional right, said the high polls from Le Pen’s party were worrying. “I will stick to the [traditional] just because they can be trusted on the economy, that’s all that matters.