Bastien Glere, a third-year law student in this university town, has always voted for the left because he says their message of inclusiveness aligns with his values. On Sunday, however, he cast an ambivalent – and strategic – ballot for the right.
The left dropped out of the second round of the race in this southern region. And Mr. Glere, who voted in the first round for the left, put aside ideology and pivoted right in order to prevent the surging far-right National Front (FN) from pulling off a first in French history, gaining control of a region. “It’s not a pretty experience but this is the way it is, voting for the bad to avoid the worst,” he says.
It was votes like his that helped stop the rise of the FN on Sunday. After topping polls in the first round, the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party was poised to score big in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, known as "Paca," and five other French regions. Instead they failed to win a single one.
But the tactical voting here could backfire. While it dealt the FN an important blow in the last race before the 2017 presidential election, the Socialists' decision does little to quell concerns that France's mainstream parties – and those of Europe broadly – are increasingly indistinguishable and only interested in maintaining their grip on power. It’s left some voters scratching their heads.
“This situation puts us at the limits of democracy,” says Lyes Haddiouche, a second-year law student and a Muslim of Algerian descent who cast his vote for the center-right candidate in Paca to help block FN's Marion Marechal-Le Pen.
Victory in defeat?
It’s not the first time the French mainstream has asked voters to cross ideological lines to stop the rise of the FN. The same happened in 2002 when FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen contested the runoff presidential race against center-right candidate Jacques Chirac, who ultimately won, in no small part due to support from Socialists.
But unlike presidential runoffs, where only the two top contenders run, in this case the Socialists dropped out in the regions where they scored poorly. Here the Socialist leadership has painted this as a sacrifice they made in the name of the French Republic.
In the port city of Marseille ahead of round two elections, Socialist Party (PS) headquarters was empty. Only the white walls, decorated with black-and-white portraits of former Socialist leaders like François Mitterrand or Jean Jaures, gave testament to the left's draw here.
Yet if the pre-vote mood was somber, today it is being spun as victory.
“It’s a shock when all of the [left’s] program might be in jeopardy and the only way to stop the FN from getting this region is to vote for the conservatives,” says PS candidate Eva Talha, who was running for regional counselor before the party dropped out. “But they’re the only ones who incarnate the same ideals as us, of equality, solidarity, liberty, and especially secularism.”
Behind the Socialists' tactical voting, former President Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right Républicains gained seven regions, compared to five for Socialists.
“I’m proud that we had the reflex to recognize that our values go beyond our party,” Ms. Talha adds, “to say 'vote for a party that’s not ours.'”
Still, the argument that the mainstream must unite to counter the extreme right "fringe" is an increasingly tenuous position to stake out. Even though the FN didn’t secure a region, they won a record number of votes, continuing their ascent.
“No matter how one counts, the National Front is not a ‘fringe’ party anymore in terms of political weight,” says Cécile Alduy, a French political analyst and author of a new book on FN rhetoric, “even though it is as extreme and radical as when it was in the single digits.”
It is the FN today that is accusing the ruling class of being anti-democratic. At a final campaign rally for the FN in Marseille, lawmaker Gilbert Collard generated cheers when he mocked Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls for calling on the French to create a roadblock against the FN to defend the values of the Republic.
“I wanted to tell him it would be better to create a roadblock against the Islamic State, or against unemployment,” he told the boisterous crowd.
'No place for relief'
In Aix-en-Provence, Mathilde Eymard says she finds the Socialist decision “cowardly.” “It wasn’t the choice of the citizens,” says Ms. Eymard, who cast a blank ballot in disgust. She says her parents, hardcore Socialists, were deeply disappointed not to be able to support a candidate.
The Socialists say they are using this as a lesson, so they don't leave voters in the future without a representative. “The left is strong in France but we seem unable to mobilize today,” says Talha. “So we’re having a lot of meetings to reconstruct the left, to have a common program to bring people together for the next elections.”
As Mr. Valls put it, striking a cautionary note upon the results: “Tonight, there is no place for relief or triumphalism,” he said. “The danger posed by the far right has not gone away; far from it.”