Marine Le Pen, the energetic leader of France’s anti-immigrant and anti-EU Front National (FN), has quickly become one of Europe’s most influential and visible leaders. After a strong showing in the 2014 European Union elections in France and in the first round of regional elections earlier this month, Le Pen's party looked set to take office accross much of France. Yet as voters went to the polls on Sunday, opposition to FN rule galvanized. In the end, the party failed to win even one regional presidency.
But despite FN’s electoral losses, its ideology is gaining popularity across the country. The influx of migrants and refugees, growing fear of radical Islam, lackluster economic growth, and lingering unemployment have called into question national identity, multiculturalism, and the efficacy and purpose of the European Union—not just in France, but region-wide. In turn, ultra-nationalist parties such as the FN have become more powerful, with worrying repercussions.
As one of the European Union’s most powerful actors, France is perhaps one of the most striking examples of what happens when xenophobia mixes with the challenges of traditional politics. French citizens feel increasingly excluded from government decisions because, as FN would put it, policies are “imposed” by the European Union, socialists have “abandoned” the working class, and the distance between rulers and the electorate has widened. The party’s supporters fear that their nation is in decline because the influence of globalization on national values, economic turmoil, and Germany’s unchallenged influence on Europe, and are grappling with the growing threat of Islamist extremism, exemplified by the November terrorist attacks in Paris. In turn, many have lost faith in standard political parties. Compared to previous regional elections, Socialists and their coalition have lost 6 percent of their vote share, and the center-right about 4 percent.
And here, Le Pen has seized an opportunity, laying the blame for France’s parties at the feet of conventional politicians, while offering hypothetical protection for native citizens and domestic industries. La France d’abord! Most importantly, FN promises to regain lost national pride by reducing immigration, closing state borders, imposing national protectionism in the economic sector, and abandoning many transnational agreements and governing bodies.
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