Far right threat

France: Foreigners could help sway municipal elections away from a potential National Front dominance

Between the rise of the National Front and Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi’s call to tighten the borders, there is much at stake for foreigners in the upcoming municipal elections. While non-Europeans are excluded from the vote, French and European citizens aged 18 and over can head to the ballot boxes on 23rd and 30th March to weigh in on local politics.

For the past few years, the far right National Front (FN) has been benefiting, especially in the traditionally right wing Côte d’Azur, from a fall in grace of the two mainstream parties and a dedicated campaign by FN leader Marine Le Pen to de-demonize her party.

With growing dissatisfaction in the main parties – the leftist Socialists (PS) and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), a conservative right wing party – France is continuously looking for a new leadership alternative. After former UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy’s term, discontented citizens throughout France split their votes between the right and the left.

In 2007, Socialists won the support of 18.3% of the population in the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur, increasing slightly to 19.4% during the 2012 national elections.

The FN, however, boosted its popularity by over 10%, rising to 23.9% in 2012 – well above the national average of 17.9% for the far right party.

With Hollande’s popularity rate grazing the single digits, support for the National Front is at an all-time high. Marine Le Pen went as far as ranking the FN as France’s first party, after it topped an Ifop poll in October 2013 regarding the European elections.

During this time, FN candidate Laurent Lopez won the cantonal elections in Brignoles (Var) with an eight point margin over his UMP opponent, garnering 54% of votes.

While the UMP remains the strongest party in the Côte d’Azur, with candidates running in 87 communes in the Côte d’Azur the FN says it is likely to win the mayor’s office in towns such as Fréjus, La Seyne, Pradet and Six Fours in the Var, not to mention the area surrounding Brignoles.

This rise in power of the National Front may also be due in no small part to Marine Le Pen’s efforts to re-brand the party. Her father Jean Marie Le Pen, who preceded her as the head of the FN, spawned the party’s far right reputation and was convicted several times for racism and anti-semitism.

Marine Le Pen, who took over in 2011, has since been trying to do away with that image, keeping neo-Nazi militants away from FN rallies during the 2012 presidential campaign and threatening to sue anyone who calls the FN an extremist right wing party.

Reports continuously surface, however, of links between FN politicians and the far right – sometimes neo-Nazi groups. As recently as last month, it was discovered that Châteauroux municipal elections candidate Bastien Durocher had a Waffen-SS tattoo. He was ousted from the campaign, but only following a media outcry.

“The problem is primarily a European one with the Schengen rules”

Nevertheless, according to a 2013 study by polling group TNS Sofres, a third of the French population agrees with the FN’s core values, with 54% of the population supporting the statement that there are too many immigrants in France.

Echoing this position held by over half of al French people, Nice’s Christian Estrosi, who is dominating the polls for his re-election, called for a referendum on immigration last month, following Switzerland’s lead in tightening their borders.

He told France 2 TV news a referendum should be held on 25th May 2014 – the day the results of the European elections will be announced. His reasoning being that “the problem is primarily a European one with the Schengen rules, which are very unfavourable for France.”

Estrosi’s remarks came on the same day Le Pen made similar proposals on Les Echos TV, invoking the “right of the people” to have control over their borders.

The Côte d’Azur has the third largest immigrant population in France – nearly half a million, or one tenth of the region’s overall population – according to a 2009 census.

A tightening of the borders, as proposed by Estrosi, would affect mostly north African populations (42% of the region’s immigrants), but would also have an impact on other non-European citizens who represent a further 23% of foreigners.

With several right of centre candidates competing against one another in many cities – such as Fréjus where there are four mainstream right wing candidates – votes are likely to be scattered. It is yet unclear whether that will benefit the FN or the less divided left.

One of Hollande’s main – and most controversial – presidential campaign promises was to give non-Europeans the right to vote in local elections. He has postponed that issue until after the 2014 municipal elections, however, following accusations by the UMP he’s trying to divide right wing voters between the UMP and the FN.

“I don’t want to give the impression that, before the municipal elections, we’re trying to use the issue of foreigners’ voting rights to maintain any kind of misunderstanding,” he said.

But some foreign citizens can still weigh in on the ballot boxes in the upcoming municipal elections taking place on 23rd and 30th March, namely European citizens, provided they were registered prior to December 2013.

That is not to say that non-European foreigners are entirely excluded from the democratic process – they can have an impact by influencing others to take that crucial vote.

Also published in The Riviera Times, April 2014 edition