Why Le Pen won't be president of France

National Front thwarted in French elections
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Story highlights

  • France's National Front Party failed to make breakthrough in second round of regional elections
  • James Shields: Party's leader has no chance of being elected president

James Shields is professor of French politics and modern history at Aston University in the United Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)France's recent regional elections were billed as a test of whether Marine Le Pen's Front National (FN) could break new ground for the populist far right in Western Europe.

With nationalist parties on the rise across the European Union, Donald Trump in the running for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States, and even the sober BBC noting the transatlantic convergence of right-wing populism between Trump and Le Pen, was this the moment to take the measure of the populist challenge? Could Le Pen shake up the political establishment in France with its two-party dominance, carve out a runway for her own presidential ambitions in 2017, and perhaps inspire other populists across the West, too?
Not quite, it turns out.
    James Shields
    The difficulty for Le Pen and her party does not lie in coming first. The FN won the first round of these regional elections handsomely, with almost 28% of the national vote, similar to its performance in the previous two (European and departmental) elections. And polls continue to predict a first-place finish for Le Pen in the opening round of the presidential election in 2017.
    Nor does the problem for the FN lie in a lack of political opportunity. The conditions in which these elections were fought could not have been more favorable for the FN, with a stagnant economy, high and rising unemployment, rampant social inequality, deep disaffection with mainstream politics, a Europe-wide migrant crisis, and Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris claiming 130 lives just three weeks before the first round.
    So why did the FN fail to convert a strong first-round lead into winning even a single region on the second round?
    The answer lies in three factors -- all beyond the FN's control: a critical shift in the dynamics of the second round; a political establishment unified in opposing the FN; and an electorate that continues to reject the FN's claims to have cast out its demons and become a "normal" party through its leader's efforts to refurbish its racist and anti-Semitic image.
    In the first round, voters choose; in the second, they eliminate. Such is the time-honored logic of French elections that prevailed again here. In the first round, the FN beat both the Socialist-led union of the left and the Republicans-led union of the right.
    But in that spectacular success lay the seeds of the FN's second-round failure.
    First the Socialist Party tactically withdrew in the most vulnerable regions in order to concentrate the anti-FN vote on the better placed center-right Republicans. Then some 3.8 million more voters (close to 9% of the electoral roll) were galvanized to turn out -- with the overwhelming majority voting against the FN. These two new factors in the second round, combined with more generalized tactical voting, produced an anti-FN momentum that Le Pen's party was powerless to counter, finishing third behind combined right and combined left lists that took control of seven and five of the 12 mainland regions respectively.
    There were strong echoes here of 2002, when Marine Le Pen's father, then party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, made a shock breakthrough to the presidential runoff against incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Then, as now, close to 3.5 million more voters mobilized in the second round to amplify the anti-FN vote and condemn Le Pen to a crushing defeat. Then, as now, the second round became less an election than a referendum on the FN.
    Though roundly defeated, the FN did record its highest ever electoral score with close to 7 million votes -- and it did triple its seats in France's regional councils to a record 358. It can give vent to familiar cries that a cartel of self-serving elites has once again blocked the party of the people from intruding on their monopoly of power.
    That much is to the FN's benefit. But very close is not close enough, and these elections (like the departmental elections of March, where the FN also failed to win a single department) will not come around again until 2021. In the meantime, the next electoral rendezvous will be the critical presidential election of spring 2017.
    So what of Marine Le Pen's prospects on the biggest stage?
    Despite the widespread tendency to see her as a serious contender, Le Pen does not have the remotest chance of being elected president of the Republic in 2017. She may win the first round, like her party in the past three elections. But she will suffer a heavy defeat in the runoff at the hands of any opponent, of left or right.
    To win the presidency, candidates must be able to muster an extensive cross-party coalition of support. In the 2012 presidential election, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy grew their support from 10.3 million and 9.7 million votes in the first round to 18 million and 16.9 million respectively in the runoff.
    Such reserves of support are unthinkable for Le Pen. The FN increased its vote between the two rounds of these regional elections from 6 million to almost 7 million; but this is an inconsequential advance compared with the grand coalition of support required in a presidential poll, where the winning candidate must secure over 50% of the runoff vote.
    The recurrent failure by the FN to translate first-round support into second-round success is reflected in the party's near non-existence within France's governing institutions (with two out of 577 National Assembly seats, 62 out of 4,108 departmental council seats, and 1,544 out of over half a million seats on municipal councils).
    And even if (indulging fantasy for a moment) Le Pen were to win the presidency -- what then? Without a single ally within the French party system, she would have to propel the FN's current representation within the National Assembly from two seats to 289 in order to achieve a governing majority.
    Marine Le Pen knows this and, for all her bombast, she will count qualification for the runoff as success in 2017. She and her FN leadership team are in this for the long game. And they have in their diaries, writ large, two future dates: 2022 and 2027. But without a change in the mechanics of French elections, the dynamics of the party system and the public perception of the FN, she may need more than a 10-year planner to schedule in a realistic shot at becoming pesident.
    Populist nationalist parties may grab headlines -- and earn some limited wins in the process -- but as was made clear in France, taking power at the national or even regional level can be a very different matter.