Expectations that the shocking mid-November terrorist attacks in Paris would reap political benefits for the far-right FN at regional elections held in December were only partially borne out. Although Marine Le Pen’s party won its largest share of the popular vote ever, the FN failed to gain control of a single region, thanks in large to the decision of the struggling center-left PS to withdraw its candidates from second-round contests it had no chance of winning, a strategy that enabled the center-right LR to defeat the FN.
Barring an unlikely recovery in the badly eroded popularity of the PS, a similar approach may be required to prevent Le Pen from winning the presidency in 2017. Assuming the Socialists have no chance of retaining the top office, their unofficial support for the LR candidate should be enough to ensure victory for the center-right party.
However, keeping the FN out of power will become more difficult in the event of further terrorist attacks or other incidents that broaden the appeal of the party’s xenophobic and euroskeptic positions. Moreover, as was made clear at the regional elections, the mainstream parties will need to clearly distinguish themselves from the FN on matters related to civil liberties or risk losing the moral high ground to Le Pen’s party.
Sarkozy’s chances of securing his party’s presidential nomination have diminished somewhat amid heavy criticism over a campaign strategy that focused on convincing voters that the LR is the equal of the FN when it comes to being tough on immigration and crime. The LR’s shift to the right does not appear to have hurt Le Pen’s party at all, but may very well have alienated supporters of the Republicans, whose new name reflects a strategy of positioning the party as the champion of traditional French values. In a similar vein, President Francois Hollande’s push for a constitutional amendment that would greatly expand the government’s authority to impose draconian security measures on an emergency basis has been assailed as an assault on liberty in numerous quarters.
Whoever takes charge from 2017 will face some difficult choices. The general government budget deficit has continued to narrow, but at a much slower pace than demanded by the EU, and is likely to remain above the 3% of GDP ceiling when the next government takes office. Moreover, electoral considerations will encourage the Hollande administration to rely on economic growth, rather than deeper structural reforms, to reduce the shortfall in the interim, an approach that will carry a risk of a setback for the deficit-reduction effort in the event of slower-than-expected growth.