With eight months to go until the next French presidential election, it’s possible that the 2022 contest will once again come down to a choice between Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
If she is to advance to the second round, as she did in 2017, Le Pen will rely on her party strongholds in the north and south of the country. In particular, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, known as PACA, where the Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) has patiently established itself as a force over the course of many years.
PACA is composed of six departments: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Hautes-Alpes, Var and Vaucluse. It includes large cities such as Marseille, Nice and Toulon, as well as those with strong symbolic or cultural significance such as Avignon and Cannes.
It was in 1995 that the Front National first won three important cities in the region during municipal elections: Toulon, Orange and Marignane, adding Vitrolles in 1997. The cities fell to the far-right due to a combination of historical mismanagement and growing dissidence, though some have since returned to more traditional parties.
In the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen won the first round with 28% of the vote in PACA, while Macron came third. Le Pen lost the second round to Macron, gaining 45% of votes to Macron’s 55%.
These electoral moments have allowed the Rassemblement National to establish itself firmly in the region, securing support, consolidating networks, hiring more employees, attracting volunteers, getting involved with local organisations and establishing a more respectable image for itself.
The anti-immigrant vote
How did the far-right become so established in the south? More than any other issue, the vote is united around the issue of immigration which aggregates almost all Rassemblement National voters, whatever their disagreements may be on other subjects such as the economy. My research has shown just how crucial this point has been in building support for the far-right in this region since 2000.
The term “immigration” must be analysed in its complexity for the electorate in PACA. It is strongly linked with cultural, cultural, economic or historical markers of identity in the region. And unlike in other parts of France, in PACA there is a strong correlation between areas with higher rates of immigration and those where there is a significant far-right vote.
The other key point lies in the rejection of Islam in its most visible forms among far-right voters, notably women who wear the veil and the presence of halal shops.
Some people – especially older voters – feel that the Provençal identity, which is not confined to the Provence department but runs through the region, is being disturbed by waves of migration.
French-origin repatriates who left Algeria after it secured independence, while not a homogeneous voting bloc, are a significant component of the far-right vote in PACA, due to their historical rejection of Charles de Gaulle who they see as having “given up” Algeria. Today this community is ageing and the historical trauma is gradually fading, but the connections have left their mark and their votes often goes to the extreme right.
Rassemblement National voters are receptive to the link often drawn between immigration and delinquency by party leaders. “Crime is the consequence of immigration”, Marine Le Pen stated in 2018, an argument that is now widely used in relation to immigration and terrorism
This electorate also remains partly convinced by the words of Marine’s father and party founder Jean Marie Le Pen, who served as a regional councillor in PACA and spoke of immigrants taking jobs from “French” people. But the argument is less present today in view of two elements: on one hand, Marine Le Pen now links employment to the wider issue of globalisation, which she says destroys jobs; on the other, the expressions “Islamists” and “migrants” have come to replace the terms “Arabs or immigrants” used in the past.
Certainly, at the heart of the party, the white supremacist idea of the “great replacement” remains appealing, but there is no longer any question of singling out “Arabs”, because second-generation immigrants formerly categorised as such are now seen as potential far-right voters.
Whereas in some parts of the country, Le Pen and her party are seen as an anathema even to those on the right, in PACA the relationship between the traditional right, Les Républicains, and the Rassemblement National is more porous.
It is in this context that Thierry Mariani, who has spent his entire political career on the right of French politics, has become a key candidate for the Rassemblement National. After suggesting Les Républicains consider agreements with Le Pen’s party in 2018, this native of Orange ended up joining the Rassemblement National list for the European elections in 2019. He was top of the electoral list for PACA in the 2021 regional elections.
Mariani is well known and well rooted in the region, particularly in Vaucluse: he was for a long time a councillor of the department and has been mayor of Valréas. In the 1990s, he was a regional councillor for PACA and then served as minister for transport during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.
As head of the electoral list in the regional elections, Mariani offered the Rassemblement National a veneer of respectability, part of a process of rehabilitation of the party initiated by Marine Le Pen since she became leader in 2011.
Mariani did not win PACA as expected in the 2021 regional elections, which were marked by record high levels of abstention, but by his presence alone, he contributed to a growing feeling that the far-right is no longer taboo or repellent in France.
Still, his failure will give the Rassemblement National pause for thought ahead of the 2022 presidential poll. Has the party hit a ceiling for electoral success? Have other parties successfully found a way to block it from winning in the second round of elections?
Marine Le Pen remains a serious contender for the upcoming presidential elections. But it would seem that the competition is getting tougher for the Rassemblement National. There is the candidacy of Éric Zemmour, who threatens to outflank the party on the extreme right. Then there is Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s former campaign director, who is now riding the wave of the anti-health pass movement, as well as her traditional rival, Nicolas Dupont Aignan. The ranks of the far-right challengers are filling up and risk splitting Le Pen’s vote in France.
As for PACA, though the region remains a bastion for the Rassemblement National, it is not the indispensable base many had thought before the regional elections.
It seems the points of weakness are multiplying for the Le Pen.