Why Brittany is bucking the trend against the rise of the far-right in France
Brittany is one of a few parts of France where people won’t be required to hold their nose today.
Not because of the purity of the sea air on the Atlantic coast, or the smell of the crepes for which our Celtic cousins are famous, but because there won’t be a single far-right candidate on their ballot papers.
Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) party head into the second round of the French parliamentary elections, which usually sees the top two candidates from the first round go head-to-head, still in contention in 208 seats – almost twice as many as in 2017 and more than a third of all seats.
It comes less than two months after voters were asked to put aside their views on Emmanuel Macron to stop Le Pen becoming President. Without another “front républicain” against the RN, Le Pen’s party is predicted to move from 7 to around 40 seats. That would be enough for the RN to form a parliamentary group for the first time since 1986, giving Le Pen the right to speak in key debates.
But Brittany, known as “terre anti-RN”, has once again bucked the trend. In the first-round last weekend, RN received 13.6% of the vote in Brittany compared to 18.7% across France and the 54% its leader received in the north-east of France.
“It’s still more difficult ground than elsewhere,” admitted the party’s leader in Brittany, Gilles Pennelle. “We still have a lot of work to do in Brittany.”
Regional, as well as religious, identity explain the far-right’s poor performances, according to Professor Arnauld Leclerc of Nantes University.
“The strong Breton identity weakens certain arguments from the RN about supposed threats to French identity,” he told Nation.Cymru. “This is without a doubt also true in Corsica and the Basque Country.
“The shared Christian culture, including among those who don’t consider themselves Christians, has also been perceived for a long time as an obstacle to the far-right. On the left as well as the right, it is usually moderates that win in this area.”
That has provided fertile territory for centrist Macron, whose Ensemble alliance received its third highest score of the first round anywhere in France in the town of Fougères in the east of Brittany.
A score of 31.4% in Brittany, compared to 25.8% across France, means Ensemble candidates will be on the ballot paper in all but two of 27 seats today. While 17 of Macron’s candidates go into the run-offs having topped the first round, they are being pushed hard in places by a new alliance of left-wing parties known as NUPES.
The current president of the French parliament, Richard Ferrand, finished just 2% ahead of the NUPES candidate in the first round and their run-off was chosen as one of 10 decisive races to watch by French newspaper Libération.
NUPES fared even better in the Loire Atlantique department, which includes Brittany’s historic capital of Nantes and which many want to see reintegrated into the administrative region. RN won just 12.3% and all 10 seats will be decided by a run-off between Ensemble and NUPES, with left-wing candidates going into eight of the contests having finished top in the first round.
With polls suggesting Macron’s alliance could finish up to 20 seats short of an overall majority, the outcome of these contests could be crucial.
Ensemble also look set to lose a seat to Breton “regionalist” Paul Molac, who last year successfully campaigned for a law promoting minority languages.
After winning 37.7% in the first round, Molac is on course for a third term as an MP despite being one of the few candidates to be standing without a party ticket.
Loïg Chesnais-Girard, the Socialist president of Brittany, tweeted on Monday to say he was “delighted with the results of left and regionalist candidates.”
However, while Brittany has maintained its traditions for now, Le Pen’s efforts to “detoxify” her party are beginning to eat away at them.
The RN vote increased by six points across Brittany and Loire Atlantique, enough to come third in 19 constituencies. In two dozen smaller communes and villages within constituencies, they topped the poll.
“Regional identity can’t play the role of a rampart when the RN position themselves on the defence of purchasing power and the revitalisation of rural areas,” warned Leclerc.
“The RN particularly in areas which are economically fragile or where working people have few prospects. They have started to emerge seriously in the areas near Brittany and even in some remote areas of Brittany.
“In big towns, the RN is clearly in hostile territory, but they are making progress in places where people feel like second class citizens.”
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