By winning the mayor's office in the small southern city of Vitrolles in a vote Feb. 9, France's most notorious political party has set mainstream parties scrambling to redraw their strategies for next year's nationwide elections.
The far right-wing National Front has also put itself back into the heart of the nation's political debate.
Until Vitrolles, a vote for the National Front had been seen as largely a way to send a message to the "real" candidates that they needed to do more to curb immigration and violence in the streets. But in the Vitrolles election, the National Front won a one-on-one race with 52 percent of the vote.
The conventional wisdom had been that an extreme-right candidate could not win a majority of French voters. And it's likely that not all who voted for the National Front actually believed in its program - to lower France's 12.7 percent unemployment rate by sending 3 million immigrants back to their countries of origin. Nor did they condone party activists carrying baseball bats in the back of their trucks to bash foreigners.
The National Front already controls the mayor's offices of three other southern towns. But until this vote, no National Front candidate had ever won a two-person race. Pundits had said that if the other parties would join forces behind a single candidate, the National Front candidate would be bound to lose. When the National Front won an election, as it did in Toulon, Orange, and Marignane in 1995, it was only because a united front did not form against it.
Vitrolles should have been a textbook case of how to prevent a National Front victory - except that it did not work.
After the Round 1 vote, the No. 3 candidate, under strong pressure from his party leader, Prime Minister Alain Jupp, agreed to drop out of the race in favor of the Socialist. Immigrant activists, human rights groups, and even film stars warned the nation that the Vitrolles race could be close and that a National Front vote would be a vote for racism.
A vindication for Front's No. 2 man
The Vitrolles election was intensively covered in the national news media. The winner was Catherine Mgret, wife of the No. 2 leader of the National Front, Bruno Mgret. Mr. Mgret had been barred from running because of spending beyond legal campaign limits in a 1995 campaign. National Front leaders and other critics have charged that such campaign laws are selectively enforced in France.
For Mr. Mgret, the National Front's top tactician, the victory was a personal vindication. "The victory is my husband's, and if it weren't for the machinations against him, he would be standing before you today," Mrs. Mgret told supporters after the vote.
Mrs. Mgret's campaign played down traditional National Front themes, such as "France for the French," in favor of calls for cleaner government, lower taxes, and jobs. Her Socialist opponent, incumbent Mayor Jane-Jacques Anglade, was under investigation for corruption and abuse of his office.
Her campaign showcased a new National Front strategy, launched by Mr. Mgret, to build a base of support in professional groups and associations of police, public housing, and prison workers. "Where things are going badly, we will be there," he said, describing the Front's new "third pillar" strategy.
Analysts say that this strategy is beginning to take hold. In the 1995 presidential vote, the National Front was the top vote-getter among workers and the unemployed.
"According to our data, National Front candidates could make it through to the second round [of voting] in at least 180 districts in next year's elections," says leading French pollster Roland Cayrol, president of the Paris-based CSA polling agency. "Voters used to reason that a second-round vote for the National Front would be wasted. Vitrolles changes that calculation."
A challenge for mainstream parties
"There are from 10 to 15 districts in the south of France where the National Front is now not far from 42 to 44 percent of the vote and could conceivably win seats in the next legislature," he adds. The Front currently has no seats in the national parliament. According to a CSA poll released Feb. 11, 70 percent of those polled think that the National Front should have deputies in the National Assembly.
"From now on, the National Front is an opponent to be reckoned with," editorialized the conservative daily Le Figaro. The only way to curb its progress is to insist that candidates demonstrate "moral dignity" and that parties rebuild a base of local activists who are "courteous, informed, and tireless."
"Populations throughout Europe are increasingly scandalized by scandals and by the refusal of politicians to take them seriously. The more scandals, the greater the disaffection toward political parties, and populist, extreme right groups will progress. We've seen it in Austria, in Italy, and in France with the National Front," says Yves Meny, director of the Florence, Italy-based Robert Schuman center and an international expert on corruption.
One possible response to the National Front is already under way. France's Socialist Party plans to reform itself from the ground up. At a recent meeting, the party committed itself to ensuring that one-third of its candidates in next year's legislative elections will be women.