In the first round of the French municipal elections on Sunday, the answer was not complicated: disenchantment with the Socialist administration of François Hollande, the most unpopular in modern times; fatigue with political scandals; and deep pessimism that either of the traditional parties of Left or Right is capable of addressing France’s structural and social ills.
More than a third of the French didn’t bother to vote, setting a record for low turnout, and many of those who did chose to punish their leaders by casting their ballots for the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. The party won one municipality outright and cleared the barrier for the second round next Sunday in 229 others, some of which it could win.
The success of the anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front was a powerful warning but not yet a reason for panic. The National Front fielded candidates in fewer than 600 of 36,000 municipalities, and won about 5% of the total vote, compared with 47% for the center-right Union for a Popular Movement and 38% for President Hollande’s Socialists. The next national elections are not until 2017, which gives the established parties time to get their houses in better order.
Many European states have seen populist parties rise on tides of resentment over immigration, other social issues, and unemployment, but their impact has usually been more to shake up national politics than to radically alter their direction, somewhat like the Tea Party in America. And while the National Front and its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, originally stood for some repugnant views, such as Holocaust denial, Ms. Le Pen, who succeeded her father in 2011, has worked to clean up the party’s image.
Still, a party with the National Front’s history and positions should not be allowed to become a major political force. And the best way to do that is for mainstream politicians to demonstrate that they’ve heard the voters’ message and are willing to exercise leadership. For Mr. Hollande, a good place to start would be to demonstrate some progress on the slow-moving “responsibility pact” he announced in January, under which the government would cut taxes on businesses in the hope of creating jobs.