PARIS – Watching the results of the second ballot in France’s regional elections on December 13, surrounded by my family, I was overpowered by a sense of relief, and even pride. The party of hatred – Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) – failed to win a single region. Democracy had prevailed. The values of the Republic had triumphed.
One month to the day after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, the French once again demonstrated clear-eyed stoicism. Just as my countrymen had remained strong in the face of terrorism, they held firm against the siren song of venomous populism. As the results of the ballot became clear, my eldest son leaned over and whispered into my ear: “It is in moments like these that it feels so good to be French.”
To be sure, as welcome as these results may be, we should not allow them to blind us to the message of the first round of balloting, in which the FN finished first in six of the country’s 13 regions. French voters are deeply disillusioned with the establishment. Since the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen has tripled her party’s popular support, attracting nearly seven million voters. And yet, as alarming as her rapid rise might be, there is much to be learned from her decisive defeat.
To begin with, the FN’s effort to present itself as a normal political party has failed. Despite Le Pen’s attempts to soften its tone and broaden its appeal, shedding – at least formally – its anti-Semitic elements, the party continues to be perceived as a risk by a majority of French voters.
“We are not fools,” was how my neighbors in Normandy – many of them farmers or artisans – put it shortly after the results of the first vote had come in. They might use the first ballot to express their anger at the government and discontent with the system, but they know that the FN is made up of incompetent extremists. They don’t want them in positions of real power.
Even in the face of economic stagnation and high unemployment – especially among the young – the French are not ready “to rock the boat” to the point of abandoning the euro or the European Union. French governments – including the incumbent one – may have failed to respond adequately to the country’s economic plight. But that doesn’t mean that voters are ready to take a leap in the dark by placing their faith in a pack of preening demagogues surfing on discontent and fear.
Indeed, fear was the dominant factor in these elections. In the first round, it favored the FN, whose raison d’être is popular anxiety about migrants, terrorists, globalization, and openness to the world. But in the second round, fear was Le Pen’s undoing. Voters not only feared handing over positions of real authority to unqualified counter-elites; they feared endangering their country’s image and damaging its position in Europe and beyond.
After all, France’s international identity is an integral component of its national identity. The country’s pride and sense of mission, inherited from the Ancien Régime and reinforced by the French Revolution, may not have prevented collaboration with Nazi Germany under the Vichy government; but it took a disastrous defeat to force France to bend its knee to the far right.
The situation today is far less dire. Le Pen might try to paint herself as a modern Charles de Gaulle, leading the resistance against the establishment. But the public continues to regard the FN as the ideological heir to Vichy France – a party that has barely shed its collaborationist clothing.
The outcome of France’s regional elections is relevant not only in Europe, but also across the Atlantic. French voters have shown that the EU is not condemned to be destroyed by attacks on its legitimacy, and that populism need not triumph. If democratic leaders – in Europe and the United States alike – heed that message and take their responsibilities seriously, politicians like Le Pen can and will be defeated.
Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.
By Dominique Moisi