Why Voters Won't Keep Bailing Out France's Mainstream

Far Right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen leaves after the second round of the regional elections in Henin-Beaumont
Far Right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen leaves after the second round of the regional elections in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, Sunday Dec.13, 2015. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front collapsed in French regional elections Sunday after dominating the first round of voting, according to pollsters’ projections. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

It is often said that politicians live for the day, lacking both a historical perspective and a long-term vision. In many ways the same can be said about media reporting on politics. Journalists and politicians seem to stumble from one crisis into another event, exaggerating the new and ignoring the old. We saw this in the extreme in the past week. Within eight days we went from "le choc" of the first round of the regional elections in France to the relief of the second round. And yet, the only shocking thing about the elections was that anyone was (still) shocked.

The first round of the regional elections were a crash course in far-right politics, a Far Right Politics 101, if you will. From decades of studies of the electoral success of far right parties in Europe we know that they succeed when the demand-side and the supply-side come together, and they did this month. Demand for far-right politics was at an all-time high after years of economic recession and stagnation had fueled already widespread anti-establishment sentiments, while the refugees crisis and the terrorist attacks in Paris -- linked to each other, despite tenuous empirical evidence, and to the European Union -- had shifted the debate to the key issues of the far right: European integration, immigration, and security.

If mainstream politicians of left and right continue to express uninspiring policies through unpopular leaders, people will stay home in even bigger numbers.

In addition, the supply of far-right politics in France is as good as it gets with Marine Le Pen, by any measure an extremely skillful politician, who has modernized (rather than moderated) and rejuvenated a largely dying party, after her father finally relinquished power. To top it all off, Marine Le Pen is faced by two unintended leaders: Francois Hollande, the accidental president, was the last-minute replacement as leader of the center-left Socialist Party (PS) of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, while Nicolas Sarkozy returned to the helm of the center-right The Republicans because the predecessor of that party -- the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) -- split over his succession.

Seen in this light, the 27.7 percent for the Front National (FN) in the first round was actually quite disappointing. After all, the party had already won 24.9 percent of the vote in the 2014 European elections -- admittedly with a slightly lower turnout. In other words, the biggest refugee crisis in recent history and two deadly terrorist attacks in Paris only led to an increase of less than 3 percent! And while the second round was lauded as "the routing" of Marine Le Pen and "the end of nationalism," the party actually increased its actual support base by more than 10 percent, going from roughly 6 million to 6.8 million voters -- the highest number of voters that the FN attracted in its over 40 year existence!

Analysts claim that a polarizing party like FN cannot win in a pluralist system like the French one. They argue that Marine Le Pen is destined to win the first round, but lose the second round of elections. But there are no laws in politics. It is true that so far the voters have bailed out the mainstream parties in the second round of both the 2002 presidential elections and the 2015 regional elections. They will undoubtedly do the same in the 2017 presidential elections. But they will not continue to come out, "hold their nose," and vote for the (only) mainstream politician who can defeat Le Pen in the second round.

If mainstream politicians of left and right continue to express uninspiring policies through unpopular leaders, people will stay home in even bigger numbers. And not just for the first round of the elections. And this will be further strengthened by France's development into a two-party state, in which Le Pen's FN is taking on (changing) coalitions of everyone else -- or, in the increasingly true terms of the FN propaganda, French politics will become a near-existential fight between FN and "UMPS." While this polarization will increase participation on both sides in the short term, only the FN supporters will continue to come out after a couple of increasingly narrow escapes of the establishment. Because the FN will still have a clear alternative program, while the political mainstream will be mainly held together by an "anti-FN" agenda.

For France to survive as a vibrant liberal democracy, it has to do more than merely keep the FN out of power. It has to rejuvenate the positive messages of liberal democracy, reclaim the meaning and message of Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). From civil society to political parties, the message should go beyond the current "don't vote for the politics of the FN because they are bad." It should be a message of hope and vision, an ideological message, delivered by competent politicians and rooted political parties. Only then will the people come out to vote in numbers, and not just in the second round, but even in the first.