Defeat without having to face a decent opposition may be more useful than success for the continued growth of Le Pen's Front National, argues Alistair Stephens
The seeming defeat of Marine Le Pen and her Front National in the second round of the French regional elections still only leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Certainly their aspirations to win two or more regions have been dashed. In the first round of voting they topped the polls in six of thirteen regions and had hoped to win at least one or two. In the end they won none.
This is not the victory they were hoping for. It is an interruption Marine's plan of attack on the presidential election in just 18 months time. But they have suffered setbacks like this before. It has not prevented the party's steady rise in the polls and in the consolidation of their vote.
Though they did not manage to win any regions they now have a much stronger base of regional councillors to work from. They also can now still pose as outsiders, the party against which, as Marine Le Pen described them, "the forces of globalisation" conspire.
This defeat may not be part of Le Pen's plans, which were to prove the party's fitness to govern by winning and running some regions (they only control a handful of local councils), but the far right in power (unsurprisingly) have proven nearly everywhere to be hopeless administrators. Defeat without having to face a decent opposition may be more useful than success for the continued growth of the party's vote.
And the mechanism by which victory has been snatched from the Front National leaves much to be desired. It was by tactical voting and unprincipled alliances with the right rather than by mass anti-Fascist activity.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The FN actually increased its national vote from 6 million in the first round 6.8 million in the second.
The elections were fought (as is usual in France) in two rounds, parties gaining more than 10% of the vote going through to the second round two weeks later. There is often a considerable rearrangement of both parties and voters between the rounds.
It was this which frustrated the FN.
Many voters switched to parties which had the better chance of beating the FN as part of a 'republican front'.
More controversially the Socialist Party stood down in the poor northern region of Pas de Calais Picardie and the south-eastern region of Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, where the Front National's challenge was led by the Le Pen's niece Marechal. The right wing Republican party of former President Nicholas Sarkozy did not return the favour however.
This has has led to some perverse results.
Cold comfort in the north
The region of Pas de Calais-Picardie is the heart of France's industrial north. Dominated by mining and industry (Zola's novel Germinal is set there) the region, like many similar 'rust belt' regions around the world, was hit hard by the deindustrialisation which swept the West in the 1980s and 1990s. Prosperity was replaced within a generation by economic depression and poverty. Unemployment remained high even through the first decade of the 21st century and climbed inexorably following the great crash.
The region is now one of Europe's unemployment blackspots with a third of the workforce on the dole in many towns.
The region was politically dominated for decades by the workers' parties, first the Communists and then the Socialist Party.
Rule by the Socialists, at both the national or local level, failed to arrest the region's economic decline and this provided fertile ground for the growth of other forces. The Front National has relentlessly targeted the area, with increasing success. Marine Le Pen ran for parliament in a seat in Pas de Calais in the last general election. She topped the poll in the first round and only lost in the second by 118 votes.
In the first round two weeks ago the Front National topped the regional poll with 40% of the vote. The previously dominant Socialists came third on just 18% and the Communist Party-led alliance came fourth.
The Socialists then decided to stand aside in the second round and called on their voters to back the right against the far right.
The result was that the FN were beaten by 58% to 42%. However it did not diminish the FN's vote which actually increased from 900,000 to over a million. The Front now hold 64 seats on the regional council to the right's 115.
This means every seat on the council is now held by the either right or far right and the Front National will be the official, and indeed only, opposition on the council to the new right wing Republican party led administration. And this is in a region that used to be a fortress of the left.
Marine Le Pen may not have won but she has hardly lost either. She will still be able to pose as the sole opposition to the status quo, something which may prove more useful in the long run.
Drive to power
It was as a party of relentless opposition and posing as the outsider that the Front National first emerged and grew under Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
A former paratrooper, he served in the French armed forces in Algeria's bloody war of independence, in which a million Algerians died, and in which he stands accused of torturing rebel suspects. France's use of torture in the conflict was massive and systematic and is a dark episode in its history. On entering politics he brought this thuggishness with him and proved to be a relentless controversialist and provocateur.
He gave voice to the ultra nationalism and racism that has always been a feature of French politics. Often thought of as the country of revolutions and progress in the Anglophone world, the way in which society has also long been characterised by reactionary Catholicism and nationalism has frequently been ignored. Anti-Semitism was a consistent feature in politics and the state running through the Dreyfus affair to the large Fascist movement the country had in the 1930s.
Discredited by Nazi occupation and collaboration during the Second World War the far right has revived on a number of occasions since, as Poujadism in the 1960s and more successfully under Le Pen senior.
On taking over the leadership of the Front in 2011 Marine has attempted to detoxify the party and oriented it on winning elections, and building the party's base in local government, as a stepping stone to electability. Jean-Marie may have been happy to be an eternal oppositionist but Marine wants power.
She has been greatly helped in her ambition, by the economic crisis and the Socialist party's failure to respond to it with anything other than more of the same neo-liberalism as the right.
She has also been helped by the rising level of Islamophobia. If the anti-Muslim rhetoric has been dialled back, the racist message more 'subliminal', it is because these ideas have become more mainstream anyway. The presence of the Front at the front of the political stage for thirty years has been a key factor in making this so. The rhetoric of the War on Terror therefore found fertile ground in which to grow.
Most serious threat
Nowhere in the Western world is Fascism as serious a threat as it is in France right now.
The National Front has grown inexorably for thirty years and they are now seriously eating into the Socialist party's working class base, disillusioned with its failure to improve their lives. Unremittingly high unemployment in many communities is eating away at long standing solidarities.
The failure to oppose Islamophobia, and the propensity to even encourage it, has only made the Fascists seem ever more acceptable.
The results of this may be grimmer and come quicker than anybody suspects.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.