Right vs. far-right in a French by-election

It’s just one by-election, but it was a very interesting result that says something about the place of the far right in European politics. And it doesn’t seem to have been covered anywhere in the English-language media, so here goes. (I’m relying mostly on the reports in Le Monde, Le Parisien and lepetitjournal.)

Voters in the second district of the Oise department – centred on Beauvais, just north of Paris – went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new member of the French National Assembly after the long-standing incumbent was unseated by the Constitutional Council. Jean-François Mancel, from the centre-right UMP, had been elected last year with a margin of just 63 votes; his election was invalidated due to an unfair leaflet circulated about his opponent on the Friday before election day.

But whereas his narrow margin in the general election had been against the Socialist Party, the by-election saw him fight it out with the far-right National Front. The Socialist candidate was eliminated after the first round, held the previous week, in which she managed only 21.4% of the vote against Mancel’s 40.6% and the National Front on 26.6%.

In situations like this, the Socialist Party’s practice is to endorse the centre-right candidate, as an expression of “republican solidarity”. And that’s what the national-level party did. But the locals refused to go along, making no endorsement either way: Mancel accused them of “playing the National Front’s game”.

So what might have been expected to be an easy second round victory turned out to be very close. Mancel won by less than 800 votes, with 51.4% to the National Front’s 48.6%. (Official results here. A centre-right independent won the other by-election held on the same day, a three-way contest in the Wallis and Futuna Islands.)

No-one seems to be able to remember a case where the National Front had gained so many votes between the first and second rounds. Leader Marine Le Pen described it as “an extraordinary acceleration of the dynamic of the National Front and a magnificent signal of hope.”

Nor was it simply a matter of Socialist voters staying home, although that’s the story the Socialist Party is trying to put out. Turnout was low – it usually is in by-elections – but it actually rose slightly between the first and second rounds, up to 35.3% of enrolled voters. Analyst Joël Gombin concluded that between 40% and 45% of Socialist voters probably turned out to vote for the far right.

The Socialist Party disclaims any intention of disciplining its local party, since after all the “republican” candidate did win the seat, presumably with some Socialist votes. And the National Front is already represented in the Assembly – one extra fascist wouldn’t have made a huge difference, so the Socialists might well have thought that making trouble for the UMP was an  attractive option.

But the risk of compromising its reputation by playing footsies with the far right is likely to outweigh any possible upside. The refusal to compromise in that fashion has been one of the recent strengths of the European left; parties of the centre-right, by contrast, have been repeatedly divided as to whether (and how much) to compromise with the far right in pursuit of office.

Nor is the issue going to go away. Before long, François Hollande and his government are going to have to decide on what to do about their campaign promise to reintroduce an element of proportional representation in legislative elections. The result of that could be a much larger contingent of National Front MPs, and some consequent headaches for both sides.



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