French Prime Minister Manuel Valls claimed victory on Sunday night following the first round of France’s departmental elections. According to some reports, upon hearing the first estimates of the results he even lit up a cigar. The triumphalism is somewhat odd, given that the prime minister’s own party, the Socialists, finished a distant third in the voting. But for the prime minister, what was important, above all, is that the National Front of Marine Le Pen did not come in first.
In last May’s elections to the European Parliament, the National Front staked a claim to being the “first party of France” by pulling 25 percent of the vote, ahead of both Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (21 percent) and Valls’s and President François Hollande’s Socialists (14 percent). In the run-up to last Sunday’s vote, the first major electoral test in France since the European elections, Valls made halting the National Front’s rise into his personal mission and on Sunday night he took time to congratulate himself. “Tonight, the far right is not the first political party of France,” the prime minister announced in a statement made shortly after the polls closed. “I am pleased, because I made a personal commitment.”
But a closer look at the election results shows Valls’s personal triumph to be illusory. The National Front did not amass the greatest number of votes on Sunday, but its total was only surpassed by a center-right alliance of three parties: Sarkozy’s UMP, the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), and the so-called Democratic Movement or MoDem. The heterogeneity of this alliance is made particularly clear by the inclusion of the MoDem. The party’s founder, François Bayrou, threw his support behind Hollande in the second round of France’s 2012 presidential elections and he is widely blamed for Sarkozy’s loss by UMP members.
Per the official results,* these three parties together garnered 29.4 percent of the vote on Sunday, as compared to the National Front, which alone pulled 25.24 percent of the vote. The UDI and the MoDem already ran together in the 2014 European elections, but they ran separately from the UMP. Per the official results for those elections, the UMP got 20.81 percent of the vote and the joint UDI-MoDem list got 9.94 percent. This adds up to 30.75 percent. This is to say that in last Sunday’s elections, the combined total of the UMP, the UDI, and the Modem actually declined by nearly 1.5 percent, as compared to the 2014 European elections. By contrast, when unrounded figures are considered, the National Front increased its share of the vote by about 0.4 percent (i.e., from 24.86 percent to 25.24 percent). This increase is made more significant by the fact that turnout for last Sunday’s election was just over 50 percent, as compared to merely 42 percent for the 2014 European elections.
In short, temporary alliances aside, it is clear that the National Front in fact remains the “first party of France” in terms of electoral support and, furthermore, that last Sunday’s elections, far from representing a reverse for the party, confirmed its upward trend.
John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist and political analyst who writes on EU politics and transatlantic security issues. He is the author of The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. His articles have appeared in such publications as Policy Review, Al-Monitor, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal Europe, and Les Temps Modernes, as well as numerous online media. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook here.
* In combination with the effect of alliances, these official results are rendered particularly opaque by the fact the elections featured “tickets” of two candidates (i.e., one male and one female). When both candidates were from the same party, their totals are included in the totals for said party. When the two candidates were from different parties, however, their totals are included in the totals for so-called “union” tickets: e.g., votes garnered by a joint UMP-UDI ticket are included in the totals for the “Right Union” (Union de la Droite); votes garnered by a joint UDI-MoDem ticket, in the totals for the “Center Union” (Union du Centre). Hence, to arrive at the overall total for the UMP-UDI-MoDem alliance, one needs to add together the totals for each of the three parties plus the “Right Union” and the “Center Union.”