At 4am on weekdays, Isabelle often thought about the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. An airport worker in her 50s, she had a pre-dawn commute along the Côte d’Azur and spent it worrying that her pension wouldn’t be enough, that crime was increasing. She began to believe the far right’s promise to give “national priority” to French people over non-nationals in jobs, housing and welfare, driven by her feeling that “immigrants” seemed to be doing better than her.
“Emmanuel Macron cares more about foreign policy than French people’s struggles, but Le Pen, a lawyer and mother of three, understands French workers,” she said. For decades, Isabelle voted for the mainstream right, but not in the forthcoming regional elections. “I’ve become one of those women who once voted Nicolas Sarkozy and now votes Marine Le Pen,” she shrugged.
The rise of the far right is dominating this month’s regional elections in France. Le Pen is reaching out to traditional centre-right voters and styling the battle as a launchpad for her third presidential bid next spring, when she could once again reach the final round against Macron.
“There is a kind of snowball effect,” said Stewart Chau, a sociologist and consultant at the pollsters Viavoice. “Marine Le Pen has not changed register or softened her key ideas. The social context in France means she is benefiting from the fact her traditional themes have anchored down deeply in public opinion in the past six years: the feeling of insecurity and crime, a feeling of decline and social inequality, and her linking those issues to immigration, Europe and globalisation. The Covid crisis has reinforced the idea of living in anxious times, the need for protection and national sovereignty.
“The more other parties place Le Pen at the very centre of the political debate by focusing on what scores she can reach and how they can lower those scores – and the more other parties seize on her topics – the more they normalise her party.”
Taking control of a French region would be a political earthquake for Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigration party, giving it potential new credibility. The renamed Rassemblement National (RN), founded as the Front National by Le Pen’s ex-paratrooper father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, nearly 50 years ago, runs about 10 town halls across France, but it has never headed a French region, where budgets are in billions and responsibilities include high schools and transport. In the past, tactical voting – often with the left pulling out to allow the right to “stop the far-right peril” – has always limited the party’s regional scores.
But in the south of France, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (Paca) region, which stretches from the high-income villas of the French Riviera to poorer villages in Vaucluse and Marseille’s low-income housing estates, is seen as a political laboratory for Le Pen. Polls show that a second-round win for Le Pen’s party in Paca is possible and that far-right regional representatives could be standing on the red carpet at next month’s Cannes film festival, in a public relations nightmare for the government.
To win the region, Le Pen’s party needs to heavily target traditional rightwing voters. The Fondation Jean Jaurès thinktank warned recently that although a 2022 Le Pen presidential win remained unlikely, it could happen, depending on her managing one of three factors.
First, Le Pen needed to win over high numbers of centre-right voters. Second, her public relations drive to “detoxify” her party’s image and move it away from its jackbooted overtones of the past would need to be so successful that mainstream voters no longer saw her as a danger and didn’t bother to vote tactically to stop her. Finally, Macron would have to be viewed with the same general level of mistrust as Le Pen herself to make voters refuse to vote for him.
Those factors are not yet lined up, but the Paca region – where voters’ top concerns are Le Pen’s key themes of crime and immigration – is being scrutinised as a litmus test. Across France, the proportion of people who see Le Pen’s party as a danger to democracy has dropped to 49%. Those on the traditional right who have a positive view of Le Pen are increasing. In an unusual move, Macron’s party has already pulled out of the Paca regional race and lined up with the right to try to stop Le Pen.
“This election is a test,” said Thierry Mariani, Le Pen’s regional candidate, after greeting applauding fishermen at a stall at Cannes market. “Paca is unique because the [traditional right] Les Républicains have teamed up with Emmanuel Macron against us. If they lose, it would show that Macron, even after lining up with others, is in big difficulty. It would show that Les Républicains have no political line any more and Macron’s La République En Marche has failed to anchor itself in grassroots France.”
Mariani, 62, who was a government minister under the rightwing Nicolas Sarkozy, is the public face of Le Pen’s drive to poach figures from the mainstream. He set up his own section of hardline rightwing MPs then jumped ship to be elected to the European parliament with Le Pen’s group in 2019.
Mariani grew up in northern Vaucluse, where he headed an opera festival, and argues his long career in politics means he can’t be seen as “dangerous”. He claims Sarkozy did not go far enough after his controversial 2005 comments about cleaning up crime in multiracial suburbs with a power hose. “Our problem was we never plugged in the hose,” he said.
Cannes, a bastion of the old-school, traditional right Les Républicains, is not Le Pen’s usual territory. Its rightwing mayor, a defender of the 2016 ban on “burkinis” on French Riviera beaches, was recently re-elected with a staggering 88% of the vote. But along the coast between Cannes and Nice, far-right canvassers said people were softening to their ideas.
“We used to have to put up posters under cover of night and change them a lot because they were vandalised,” said Gabriel Tomatis, a 22-year-old history student from Nice who joined the party aged 17. “Now we’ve been putting them up in broad daylight and people stop to congratulate us.”
He said local youth membership in the Alpes-Maritimes area had grown in recent months. “In my student union, I can see more interest in Le Pen, particularly with the difficulties students have faced since Covid.”
Le Pen is currently appealing to voters increasingly worried about violence and delinquency. She has linked crime to “massive, unregulated immigration”, saying France faces “chaos”.
While the left counters that this is statistically wrong, the far right has been boosted by Le Pen’s language seeping into the mainstream. Macron’s interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, talking of crime, has warned of the “growing savageness of a part of French society”.
At the Cannes flea market, Paul, 83, had risen at 5am to drive from Nice to set out his stall of antique cutlery. He used to vote for the traditional right, but now would chose Le Pen. With very few tourists because of Covid, times were hard. He sometimes only made €10-€15 (£8-£12) at the flea market, barely covering petrol costs. His pension was €700 a month. “There’s a big economic crisis coming,” he said. “Crime is up, there aren’t enough police. People around me are saying: Why not try Le Pen?”
Christel, 73, a former tour operator and a lifelong voter for Sarkozy’s party, said she would never chose Le Pen for president. But for the regional elections, she was open-minded. “I’m disappointed by politics and I can feel myself getting more radical,” she said.
Christèle Lagier, a lecturer in politics at Avignon University, described the RN’s southern supporters on the right as having jobs where “they do not have large spending power, but they nonetheless work, pay taxes and have the feeling that the system of social redistribution isn’t working to their advantage”. She said RN voters felt they were not getting back the same advantages as others, and – in Le Pen’s rhetoric – felt they weren’t getting as much as immigrant populations.
Christophe Castaner, a key Macron figure in the south, recently called the RN’s anti-immigration rhetoric false and “anti-republican”, saying it was a “racist party”, with historical convictions for antisemitism and funded from abroad.
In Cannes, Jean-Luc, a partner in an architecture firm, who always voted traditional right, said Le Pen’s party’s high polling was worrying. “I’ll stick with the [traditional] right because they can be trusted on the economy, that’s all that matters.”