By George Friedman
The French National Front was defeated in the second round of regional elections on Sunday. The National Front is a conservative, anti-EU, anti-immigration party with a fairly long history, and occasional strength, whose moment appeared to have arrived. Given that they had done so well in the first round, leading the Socialist and Republican Parties, it seemed likely that they would sweep the second round and take control of at least some of the regional governments. That didn’t happen. However, before we can consider the implications of their loss, we need to consider what might have happened.
There are three possible scenarios. In the first, supporters of the National Front, voting in protest against the two main parties, took the opportunity to vote for the party in the first round, which would not determine the ultimate winner, and then abandoned them in the second. In the second, there was a massive turnout of people who had not voted in the first round, and this classic silent majority turned out heavily for the two establishment parties. In the third, the decision by the Socialist party to throw their weight behind some conservative candidates who finished ahead of them in the first round, and of some Socialist voters to do the same, essentially created a single unified block that was able to lock out the National Front.
If the first scenario happened, this is very bad news for the National Front, as it means that their apparent strength is an illusion, at least to some but very significant extent. If it is the second, it means that the establishment parties have hidden strength that they can rally. It is certainly bad news but if the National Front holds on to its base, it can battle for this silent majority, which in the end might be available for taking or at least splitting. If this was the result of the coalition being formed, this might be a very good defeat for them. The National Front has been trying to redefine the French political system by arguing that there is no real difference between the two establishment parties. In the mind of Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, both parties are pro-EU and both are unable to cope with the the EU’s crises. Forcing them to informally collaborate against the National Front, at least to some extent, confirms the party’s narrative and allows the National Front to take the role of the real and only opposition party. This would allow Le Pen to redefine the French political system, and possibly ultimately emerge as the natural frontrunner.
If only politics were simple enough so that we could define one of these scenarios as what happened. In the course of losing the National Front increased its vote to nearly 6.5 million — about a half million more than last round. Obviously that means that the turnout was larger than before and disproportionately anti-National Front. Clearly there was a coalition formed by the two establishment parties. Turnout went from about 50 percent in the first round to about 59 percent in the second. Until the numbers are crunched with exquisite care, we cannot be certain how the higher turnout impacted the election versus the coalitions that were formed to pool votes against the National Front.
Nevertheless, we can say this. While the media is portraying this as an unmitigated disaster for the National Front, we can say it was a mitigated disaster. The National Front did indeed suffer a blow, particularly after high expectations for success, but the party will be able to claim that they only lost because of the coalition voting, and therefore the opposition showed their true colors. This is not nearly as good as winning, but given that the three blocs were not that far apart in the first round, and that the National Front lost if the two parties were treated as one, skillful PR could have handled this.
Dissecting elections is fun, but only rarely useful. In this case it matters because it is important to know how strong the National Front is given the recent events in Paris. This, coupled with the now endemic economic problem in Europe, has raised the question of whether the two establishment parties had been delegitimized. The National Front was seen as the anti-establishment party that would benefit from the mood after the attacks. It did benefit, but not sufficiently enough to delegitimize the establishment parties.
This is not only important in taking the temperature of France but of all of Europe. Our model forecast increased influence and ultimately power for right-wing, Euroskeptic, anti-immigration parties throughout Europe, something we have already seen. These rightist parties have not taken power but have redefined the political issues toward the question of national sovereignty in the face of EU intrusions and economic dysfunction. The massive immigration issue on top of the economic and sovereignty issue was an added factor. And pyramiding that was the terrorism issue.
What seems to have happened, certainly in France but also in other countries, is that the rightist parties have not taken power, but that establishment parties have shifted their position to the Right. After the terrorist attack, the Socialist Party of President Hollande moved rapidly to temporarily close France’s borders, catapulting a right-wing position, which is the opposition to Schengen — the agreement that instituted open borders in much of Europe—should be limited, into a centrist issue. In country after country, what had been an issue of marginal parties, has become an establishment issue. Similarly, in many countries limiting immigration has moved from the margins to the center. We have seen less of that on economic issues concerning the EU, but even here, the argument against austerity is being made, if in a restrained voice.
In order to defeat the National Front, both the socialist and conservative parties were compelled to address their agenda and on some important points shift their position, if not because of the National Front then because of recent events. It seems to us that the lesson of the National Front defeat is that the public lacks sufficient trust in the right-wing parties like the National Front to give them power. At the same time the establishment parties — many if not all — can only cordon off the right-wing parties by shifting their own stance to take up their space or block expansion. And it is certainly clear that simply dismissing the right-wing position is no longer feasible.
The electorate sought to limit the National Front, and the establishment parties closed ranks to enclose them. Most were not prepared to allow the National Front out of the margins. But it still transfigured the issues that the establishment parties must discuss, and it created a collaborative framework for survival. Which means, if this phenomenon goes further, that failure means if one goes down, so do both. And then National Front will have its opening. This was a victory for the establishment. It should not leave them feeling excessively comfortable either in France or elsewhere in Europe. But we suspect that excessive comfort will be exactly what is generated.