France’s Far-Right Seeks a Breakthrough in the South

The National Rally could win a key regional election—and a chance at mainstream success.

National Rally campaign posters
National Rally campaign posters dominate the public message boards in parts of France’s Vaucluse department. These were seen hanging in Le Pontet on June 8. Cole Stangler for Foreign Policy
National Rally campaign posters National Rally campaign posters

National Rally campaign posters dominate the public message boards in parts of France’s Vaucluse department. These were seen hanging in Le Pontet on June 8. Cole Stangler for Foreign Policy

National Rally campaign posters

National Rally campaign posters dominate the public message boards in parts of France’s Vaucluse department. These were seen hanging in Le Pontet on June 8. Cole Stangler for Foreign Policy

LE PONTET, France—Beside the entrance to a local police station last week, far-right National Rally candidate Thierry Mariani hammered home a central theme of his campaign to head the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regional government: security. Policing in France is largely overseen by cities, not regions, but if elected Mariani has promised to increase the number of regional rail police from 100 to 500 and create a new security force for high schools across the region, which extends from the foothills of the Alps to the French Riviera.

The region’s history makes it especially amenable to the National Rally. It is one of France’s longstanding immigration hubs, drawing in southern Europeans throughout the 20th century and then waves of immigrants from the Maghreb in North Africa. It also has a large population of pied-noirs: Europeans who fled France’s former colonial holdings in North Africa after they won independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Today the region is a hotspot for internal migration, attracting both those looking for economic opportunity and spots to retire.

The party’s messaging is resonating in an otherwise sleepy regional election campaign. Turnout for the two-round vote, held on June 20 and 27, is expected to be low. Polls show Mariani leading incumbent Renaud Muselier of The Republicans, the mainstream right-wing party, by a small margin—making Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur the National Rally’s best shot at victory. A win would hand the party a 2 billion-euro annual budget—and give it a boost ahead of next year’s presidential elections in which standard bearer Marine Le Pen hopes to unseat President Emmanuel Macron.

A former cabinet minister, Mariani left The Republicans for a spot on the National Rally ticket in the 2019 European elections, which gave him a seat in the European Parliament. He told Foreign Policy that the National Rally is on its way to becoming the country’s main opposition force, leaving his former party in the dust. “There’s no more space between a [National Rally] that’s totally integrated into the political landscape and doesn’t scare anyone anymore, and Macron who’s taken up the bourgeois space. The Republicans have no space left,” Mariani said.

A victory in the Mediterranean region could lend credence to this narrative, marking a major step forward in the National Rally’s ongoing quest to win over conservative voters and establish itself as a mainstream alternative to Macron.

Thierry Mariani talks with the media

National Rally regional candidate Thierry Mariani talks with the media after a visit to a police station in Le Pontet, France, on June 10. Cole Stangler for Foreign Policy

If the National Rally triumphs in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, it would be the first French region held by a far-right majority. The party has found some success by winning over disaffected working-class voters who once backed left-wing parties, particularly in France’s deindustrialized north. But on the opposite end of the country, it is building a very different base. In economically challenged parts of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the National Rally has won support from more conservative voters, racking up local victories and a network of well-regarded elected officials.

As in the north, the National Rally counts on support from manual laborers and service workers, but it also appeals to those higher up on the socioeconomic ladder in the south. “This a region where the National Rally has an important base of people who are retirees, small business owners, shop-owners, artisans who are maybe less favorable than Marine Le Pen is to state intervention,” said Jean-Yves Camus, the co-director of the Observatory of Political Radicalism at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation think tank. “[They’re] in favor of less paperwork, fewer taxes, more freedom for business.”

Le Pontet, a town of 17,500 people held by the National Rally since 2014, is a key foothold. The northern suburb of Avignon doesn’t look quite like the picturesque villages nearby: It contains a sprawling shopping mall, a prison, and a car-oriented downtown. It’s also had its fair share of socioeconomic struggles. Le Pontet has a higher unemployment rate, a higher poverty rate, and a lower median income compared to the French average.

Last year, Le Pontet Mayor Joris Hébrard won reelection on the National Rally ticket in a landslide. He said his biggest accomplishments include reducing the municipal debt and doubling the city’s police force. Hébrard, 39, credits his first win seven years ago to a desire to shake things up. “Our success in Le Pontet comes from the fact that we have a platform that’s reasonable, that’s feasible, that’s not going to try to do extraordinary things, but instead focused on concrete, day-to-day things,” he said. “It’s not very ideological, it’s very practical.”

But like many local elected National Rally officials, Hébrard also has an anti-establishment edge. The mayor proudly displays a bobblehead of former U.S. President Donald Trump on his desk, distrusts the media, and has criticized mask mandates throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Although Hébrard isn’t interfering with the government’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, he said he doesn’t plan on getting the shot himself. That lack of trust in government is a key part of the National Rally ethos—closely tied to the notion that party members speak their minds, no matter who it offends.

This contrarianism hasn’t proven a stumbling block to the National Rally’s appeal. In the surrounding department of Vaucluse, a largely rural part of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the party now governs five towns, including three that joined its ranks last year, and counts dozens of town councilors in the opposition. Although the National Rally couldn’t defend the National Assembly seat previously held by Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece, Vaucluse gave the party—then known as the National Front—some of its best scores during the 2017 presidential election.

In Monteux, a town northeast of Le Pontet, Le Pen won 58 percent of the second-round vote against Macron in 2017, almost double her share of the nationwide vote. A week before Sunday’s regional elections, Monteux’s public message boards were covered with Mariani posters, suggesting an established presence that continues to draw new voters. Marie, a 31-year-old secretary from Monteux, told Foreign Policy she had never voted for the National Rally but is leaning toward Mariani on Sunday because she likes his focus on security. “I’m just afraid maybe they’re a bit too extreme. That’s the only fear I have really,” she said.

National Rally campaign posters

Public message boards in Monteux, France, are covered with National Rally campaign posters June 9. Cole Stangler for Foreign Policy

The National Rally’s relative popularity comes amid a broader rightward political shift in France. Mainstream debate now centers around issues such as terrorism, migration, and crime, amplified by a changing media landscape and the Macron government’s own policy discussions.

Camus said the far-right’s success in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur cannot be explained by protest voters alone. “It’s also a vote of support for some simple ideas: There are too many immigrants; security isn’t assured; the political elites are corrupt,” he said. “It’s the affirmation of a vision of society that’s very reactionary on a societal level, [against] everything having to do with multiculturalism, but also economically liberal.” Recent immigration could fuel a sense of insecurity and resentment among long-term residents—and sympathy for the National Rally, Camus added.

The question is how long France’s mainstream right can continue to resist the National Rally, and whether the two camps can coexist. This year’s showdown in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur could prove to be an outlier and a reflection of the region’s unique conditions, but it may signal a more powerful storm headed for The Republicans. Julien Aubert, a National Assembly member for Vaucluse, expressed a fear that France’s mainstream right-wing party is at risk of being wiped out for good. A former deputy party leader for The Republicans, he acknowledged his party is under assault from both sides: Macron from the center and Le Pen from the right.

“If you’re running a country and you have nomads threatening your ground, attempting to invade you, the first thing you do is to build a wall to say, ‘That’s my property,’ to block the nomads from coming onto your soil,” he said. “The problem with [The Republicans] is they don’t want to build the walls.”

A gambit by Macron’s party, La République En Marche!, has further eroded the mainstream right’s ramparts in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Last month, it endorsed Muselier’s ticket, a move that generated immense backlash within The Republicans but was accepted after contentious negotiations. The party’s regional ticket now includes more than a dozen En Marche! supporters. Aubert disagrees with the acceptance of the endorsement, which he said played into the hands of the National Rally by bolstering its narrative that the mainstream right offers just another flavor of Macronism.

As in the last two election cycles under Macron, the National Rally’s so-called de-demonization strategy is in full swing. To boost its appeal nationwide, the party is drawing attention to the candidates on its regional tickets with backgrounds in across the political spectrum, aiming to show its mainstream credibility and readiness to govern. In many ways, Mariani embodies this strategy: A polished leader with cabinet-level experience who still isn’t a card-carrying member of the National Rally, he has stressed that three of the six candidates heading tickets in the region’s departments aren’t either.

But the demons aren’t far away. Philippe Vardon, Mariani’s campaign manager who is also on the regional ticket himself, once belonged to the far-right group Radical Unity, which was outlawed after a member attempted to assassinate then-President Jacques Chirac in 2002. The same year, Vardon founded the group Identity Bloc, whose youth wing the French government recently dissolved for inciting hate and violence. In 2005, he founded Nissa Rebela, a group known for agitprop like renaming city thoroughfares Muslim Brotherhood Street and Burqa Street. In 2015, Vardon left Nissa Rebela in 2015 just before winning a seat in regional government with the National Front.

As a recent report highlighted, more than a dozen candidates with similar extremist pasts populate National Rally tickets nationwide. A handful have been in the party since the days of Jean-Marie Le Pen, while others have different backgrounds, from a well-known far-right student union to the pan-European Identitarian movement. Some could soon find themselves in regional parliaments at the expense of France’s mainstream right—and then on their way to even greater ambitions.

For his part, Vardon bristled at the characterization of his past activism as far-right. “I was very engaged in the defense of local, national and European identity,” he said. “[T]here are a certain number of principles and values that were at the basis of my engagement—sometimes with clumsiness, sometimes with errors—that are still principles that guide me today. I’m fighting for the identity and the liberty of my people—that’s a compass.”

Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Paris. Twitter: @colestangler

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