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The National Front’s strength makes French politics a three-way affair (The Economist)

Sometimes small elections are markers of major political change. France’s latest vote, a two-round ballot on March 22nd and 29th to elect deputies to the 98 assemblies of France’s “departments”, may well turn out to be just such an election. On the face of it, the outcome will be a straightforward victory for the centre-right, led by Nicolas Sarkozy, a former president. In reality, it marks a shift in France from alternating two-party politics to a more fluid tripartite system.

The first element in this new political order is the performance of the populist National Front (FN), with its anti-immigration, anti-Europe and anti-establishment message. The party’s combative leader, Marine Le Pen, had hoped it would come top in first-round voting and become, in her words, “the first party of France”. In the end, Mr Sarkozy’s UMP scored 29%, while the FN finished second with 25%, short of the triumph she had hoped for.

For some commentators, this amounted to a defeat. Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister whose party came third with 21%, reportedly lit a cigar to celebrate the FN’s failure to place first. It was, he said, an “honourable” result for his party, and he congratulated “republican” voters for rejecting a party which, he judges, does not share the country’s founding values. Certainly the polls, which had predicted Ms Le Pen’s party would win about 30%, turned out to have been a poor guide, in part because voter turnout was higher than usual for this sort of election.

Yet it is a measure of how far the FN has come to shape the French political debate that her result could be considered a disappointment. It was the party’s best-ever score at national level, just above that achieved at European elections in 2014. The party came top in nearly half the country’s departments, including some of the rural constituencies that have become its new frontier. In the run-offs, the FN is set to pick up scores of councillors, up from just two in 2011.

In other words, the FN is transforming itself from a fringe movement that throws up periodic freak results into a regular feature of French politics, with the electoral ups and downs that this implies. This increasingly makes it an alternative opposition party to the governing Socialists, with a solid quarter or so of voters. Such a position is all the more remarkable given that the UMP’s first-place score was achieved only thanks to an alliance with the UDI and Modem, two centrist parties.

All the same, Mr Sarkozy will take comfort from the result, which is likely to hand his party a sweeping victory in the second round. Hitherto the ex-president’s political comeback had been faltering. Mr Sarkozy was elected UMP chief last November on the back of a lower-than-expected score, and has struggled to convince a divided party and its centre-right voters that he is the leader of the future. The latest result will strengthen his hand, and his chances of securing the party’s presidential nomination for elections in 2017.

As for President François Hollande, the result was a downright humiliation, however much Mr Valls tried to argue otherwise. The Socialists are set for crushing losses in the second round–they have lost every mid-term election since Mr Hollande took office. This election exposes a cruel calculation on the left, as the party turns its eyes towards 2017. The Socialists’ poor score reflects a failure in most constituencies to join up with the Greens and other parties of the left. If the party has any hope of making it into the presidential run-off in 2017, it needs friends. Yet the ideological differences between the moderates around Mr Valls and the rest of the French left have never looked so wide, nor the chances of bridging them so slim.

The Economist

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