Friday, October 17, 2014

Is Europe's far-right heading for power? Part 3-France

France's European elections produced some of the most astonishing results in Europe. A first-place result for the National Front was picked up by many news sources as evidence of a huge far-right and Eurosceptic surge across Europe. However, it is questionable whether this result represents a swinging of opinion against the EU, or simply the swinging of people who were already Eurosceptics against the EU.

What were the results?

At the last European elections in France, the National Front won the most votes. They won 24.85% of the vote, and 24 seats out of 74. The centre-right Union for a Popular Movement won 20.8% and 20 seats, a loss of 7% from the last elections. The big losers were the Socialists, the governing party, who won just 14% of the vote and 13 seats. The Greens (or as they are known in France, Europe-Ecology) won 9% and 6 seats, down from a record-breaking 16% at the last election (a result that owed more to the utter ineptness of the Socialists than a positive result for them). A centrist pro-euro coalition of the Democratic Movement and Union of Democrats and Independents won 10% and 7 seats.

The result was certainly poor for the Socialists, and no amount of positive analysis can change that. The Socialists have never done well in European elections, but this is below their previous nadir of 14.5% in 1994 (and that was with a Radical list to split the Socialist vote and an unpopular president).

The UMP, too, have suffered. A divisive leadership contest between  Francois Fillon and Jean-Francois Cope reduced support for the party. The party was unpopular in 2009, and the centre-right have always done poorly in European elections, but 20.8% is a bad result for an opposition party (the party has has one poorer result in 2004, with 16%, and that was with the centre-right Union for French Democracy running an independent list).

The National Front can celebrate. 24.9% of the vote is not especially strong, but it is the best result that the party has got, and the best result for an openly Eurosceptic party in any European election. But does this mean that Eurosceptic support has significantly increased?

The Eurosceptic vote in France

France has had a long string of Eurosceptic parties. However, most of the early right-wing Eurosceptic parties merged into the UMP at its formation. The graph below shows the results for Eurosceptic parties at each European election year.

The following parties are coded as Eurosceptic: Rally for France, Movement for France, French Communist Party, National Front, Hunting Fishing Nature Tradition, National Republican Movement, Workers Struggle, Revolutionary Communist League, LIBERTAS, Arise the Republic, New Anticapitalist Party.

As you can see, the recent high point of the Eurosceptic vote was in 1999. At this election, the right-wing Rally for France-Movement for France list came second, beating the centre-right Rally for the Republic  list (led by a young Nicholas Sarkozy). The  Communists and National Front also did well. The Eurosceptic vote dropped dramatically in 2004, perhaps influenced by the slight rightward shift of the new UMP and the collapse of the Rally for France.

In 2009, President Sarkozy was in power. Sarkozy is on the right of the UMP, and he captured a large share of the National Front vote at his first presidential election. The French Communists were slowly but surely collapsing, and the LIBERTAS party was not strong enough to provide a coherent alternative. As a result, the openly Eurosceptic vote dropped again.

In 2014, the landscape was very different. The UMP were unpopular and divided, which turned off Eurosceptic voters. The Communists slighly increased their vote, but they were not attractive to the right-wing. The only moderate Eurosceptics, Arise the Republic, were too small and irrelevant to have any impact.

The fact is that a moderate Eurosceptic party, such as UKIP, could probably soak up a large share of the National Front vote. And National Front leader Marine Le Pen knows this. She has made tough decisions to clean out her party, expelling some avowedly Nazi members.

But what does this all mean?

The National Front tend to do better at European elections in terms of seats. This is because European elections take place using proportional representation, In National Assembly elections, a different method is used- the two-round system. Under the two-round system, there are two elections. At the first election, all candidates may participate. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, a second round is held, where the top two, as well as any candidates above 12.5% compete. A plurality is needed to win in this round.

This system tends to encourage centrists and moderates, and to discourage extremist or divisive candidates. For example, at the 1958 election, the French Communist Party won 18.9% in the first round and 20% in the second round, but only 10 seats out of 546. However, this quality makes it extremely disproportional.

The two-round system has severely limited the National Front's parliamentary representation. Despite winning 13.6% in the first round in the 2012 legislative elections, the party won only two seats out of 577, while the smaller moderate Radical Party of the Left, in alliance with the Socialists, received 12 seats on 1.65% of the first-round vote.

It is therefore unlikely that the National Front will win a large share of seats in the next National Assembly elections. Certainly, they will win more. Right-wing UMP candidates may endorse National Front candidates over Socialists, and there will almost certainly be a significant number of National Front deputies in the next National Assembly. However, it will be a minority, and the Socialist group will almost certainly be larger.

Presidential elections-could Marine Le Pen win?

Another oft-repeated scenario was the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the presidential election. Some polls show Le Pen beating Hollande in a runoff. However, there is a serious problem with this idea. For a start, every candidate from the UMP would beat Le Pen, as left voters are more likely to vote for the right to beat the National Front than the reverse. Second of all, the UMP's support is low, but the UMP candidate would almost certainly run in a second round against Le Pen, and the only scenario in which a Hollande-Le Pen runoff would happen is if there was an independent centre-right candidate. 

In short, while the National Front have the ability to be a larger and more relevant party, due to the charactaristics of France's electoral system, it is unlikely that they will win any political power.

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