France's Political Alignments Shift
The extreme-right National Front is stealing the spotlight in the runup to regional elections that could shake France's ruling Socialist Party
LUCETTE BORNET and Josiane Demeyer do not fancy themselves keen political analysts, but their doorstep banter on a recent morning offered clues to the deep transformation sweeping France's domestic political scene.Skip to next paragraph
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Part of the sparse crowd that greeted Prime Minister Edith Cresson on a campaign stop in this northern city, the two women say people in their sagging public housing complex are "disappointed," and ready in larger numbers than ever before to consider an alternative after more than 10 years of Socialist rule.
"There are going to be some big surprises," says Mrs. Demeyer, of France's March 22 regional elections. "People are fed up." That could "lead people to go with the ecologists, or maybe they just won't vote," adds Mrs. Bornet. And if, unlike their neighbors, the two women came out to see Mrs. Cresson, it was to let her know that they, too, oppose the rise of France's extreme-right National Front - an issue the prime minister has placed at the center of her campaign.
"Le Pen," the two women nod, referring to the National Front's controversial and ubiquitous leader. "That's really what this election has come down to."
Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front (FN) are indeed dominating the French political agenda. After gradually rising in popularity over the last decade, on the eve of elections the anti-immigration, France-for-the-French leader may bring the FN 15 percent of the national vote. That would confirm the extreme right as a force to be reckoned with in France and as a spoiler of the country's traditional left-right political configuration.
In city after city, Mr. Le Pen has been greeted by anti-FN demonstrations, some of them violent. With protesters chanting "No freedom for the enemies of freedom," and with some cities denying the legal party access to public facilities for its meetings, Le Pen has regaled his large, enthusiastic audiences with diatribes that turn accusations of fascism and antidemocratic tendencies back on his accusers.
"They can use whatever tactics they want, they can be as undemocratic as they want to shut us up," Le Pen said here last week. "But we reply: It's too late."
Yet even as the debate over Le Pen dominates the political arena, it is obscuring a broader transformation shaking the French domestic political scene. With the traditional political parties, including the Socialists, the Communists, and the two mainstream conservative parties all facing voter discredit, many observers anticipate a significant redrawing of the French political map following the regional election.
"After these elections, France is going to be playing on a whole new political stage," says Pascal Dubois, who heads a list of candidates in the Lille region for Generation cologie, a young movement espousing pragmatic environmentalism and a break with traditional politics.
Taken with the longer established Greens party, the two environmental parties are expected to garner as much as 15 percent of the vote. Added to the FN's share, that leaves less than 70 percent to France's "band of four" traditional major parties, and little hope for anyone to achieve a working majority.