Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, proclaimed the birth of "a third major political force" after her party's victories in the country's latest municipal elections. Happily, she has a lot of competition for the title of strongest woman in French politics.
The extreme right claimed 12 mayoralties, its biggest electoral success ever, albeit largely in small towns that have little political or economic significance. What most of them have in common is higher-than-average unemployment rates -- a fact suggesting, despite the National Front's statements to the contrary, that the wins were more a protest vote than any affirmation of the far right's protectionist, anti-immigrant policies. Four National Front vice presidents, Le Pen's closest aides, all suffered defeat in local races. In some towns, the threat from the far right prompted President Francois Hollande's Socialists and the center-right UMP to join forces, helping each other's candidates win.
The main obstacle to Le Pen's ascendancy is that France, for all its economic stagnation and dissatisfaction with Hollande, remains a progressive society. Although Le Pen has done her best to distance herself from the virulent anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, she is still intensely xenophobic, and there are plenty of unreformed bigots in the party ranks. There are many more ideologically palatable women in the French political landscape.
Consider Anne Hidalgo, who won the mayoralty in France's most important municipality, Paris. Hidalgo has three highly visible qualities that could have weighed against her but didn't: She is a Socialist in a country determined to show displeasure to a Socialist government, she ran for mayor in a city that had always been run by men, and she is an immigrant from Spain who spoke Spanish with her parents and became a French national only at age 14. Old rumors that Hidalgo had been Hollande's mistress and even borne his child did no damage to the Socialist candidate. Unlike her party's leader, she projected confidence and competence, and Parisians believed she could run the complex, often chaotic city.
A woman was destined to become mayor of Paris in any case: Hidalgo's main competitor was Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, an environment minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy. NKM, as she is known, is a blue-blood politician, granddaughter of an ambassador and daughter of a mayor. At the outset of the campaign, one of her advisers referred to the race as one between "a star and a concierge," referring to the fact that, until recently, many concierges in Paris were Spanish speakers. Hidalgo responded hotly, describing NKM as a member of a "caste" -- a portrayal Koscuisko-Morizet reinforced when she described, in an interview with Elle magazine, the cramped Paris Metro as "a place of charm," a comment for which she was universally ridiculed on Twitter as a society lady with romantic notions about life as most people live it.
A female candidate prevailed in another important town: Avignon, where the organizers of France's oldest running arts event, the Festival d'Avignon, threatened to move the whole thing to another city if the National Front candidate won. As it happened, Socialist Cecile Helle handily beat the far-right candidate, homophobic comedian Philippe Lottiaux, who had been in the lead before the March 30 runoff.
All told, the results of the municipal elections suggest that France's egalitarian, republican tradition is still strong, and the National Front is too far behind the times to achieve much beyond its limited victory.
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