A day after the far-right National Front party reinforced its claim to be France’s most potent political force, the country’s mainstream parties were confronted with unpalatable options to try to contain its seemingly inexorable rise eighteen months before the next presidential poll.

Mainstream dilemma

Three weeks after terrorists killed 130 in a series of attacks in Paris, the FN stunned the French political elite by coming first in 6 out 13 contests in first-round regional elections and winning a record 28 per cent of the vote nationwide. For traditional parties, the FN’s success poses an agonising dilemma: unite to beat the far-right in Sunday’s run-off vote, but at the risk of playing into to Ms Le Pen’s narrative of a mainstream conspiracy intent on blocking her; or stay in the race and hand her control of regional councils for the next six years, giving the FN the chance to build a track record in power.

Either way is likely to help Ms Le Pen’s presidential bid in 2017, according to Laurent Bouvet, political sciences professor at Versailles University: “For mainstream parties, it’s a lose-lose situation.”

The ruling Socialist party, which is leading in three regions, has opted for the former, urging its candidates to stand aside in Nord-Pas de Calais, where Ms Le Pen is leading, Provence-Alpes-Cotes d’Azur in the south, where her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen is also in pole position, and in the east. It called on its supporters instead to back second-placed centre-right candidates.

Nicolas Sarkozy, former president and leader of centre-right party Les Républicains — which together with its centrist allies is ahead in four regions — has meanwhile chosen the latter course. To the dismay of some moderates, Mr Sarkozy instructed his candidates to neither strike a deal with the socialist party nor withdraw from the race, even when they have little chance of beating the FN.

The Socialist party’s message of resistance to the far-right was in any case blunted by the refusal of its lead candidate in the east to obey the instructions from Paris and stand aside in favour of the centre-right.

“Withdrawing does not automatically mean defeating the FN, but it certainly means disappearing from regional councils for six years,” Mr Bouvet explained. “It’s demotivating for the ground troops. The socialist party is already bleeding from several electoral beatings in the past two years. Elections are won with activists on the ground.”

Sarkozy setback

Mr Sarkozy is also in an especially dfficult position. Given socialist president François Hollande’s poor economic record and record unemployment, the centre-right was hoping for a bigger tally than 27 per cent of the votes. His strategy of tacking to the far-right with a tough stance on immigration, security and Europe has not prevented voters from swinging to the FN in regions such as Provence, where Ms Maréchal Le Pen beat the centre right candidate by 14 percentage points.

Alliances between the leftwing socialist and centre-right Les Republicains in the second round would reinforce Ms Le Pen’s case that mainstream parties are part of a system designed to exclude her party. Not uniting could help her win one, two or more regions on December 13.

Bruno Cautrès, a political sciences professor at Sciences Po university, says there is now an “irreconcilable faultine” in the centre-right between those who say they should address the concerns of far-right voters and those such as Alain Juppé, a rival to Mr Sarkozy for the presidential nomination, who believe electoral success lies in the centre.

“The problem is,” Mr Cautrès noted, “these elections do not support any particular thesis. This will therefore intensify the battle between Mr Sarkozy and Mr Juppé in the party primaries next year.”

Mr Juppé on Monday backed Mr Sarkozy’s tactic for the second round, but called for a change of strategy.

“We cannot let the left alone bear responsibility for this trend,” he wrote on his blog. “We will have to question ourselves. (…) Not to undergo a masochist introspection but to lead to a strategy to win over the French people’s trust. We have a year.”

The manoeuvring prompted a sneer from the FN leader on Monday.

“The Socialist party, just like the Order of the Solar Temple, has decided to commit a collective suicide by withdrawing its candidates,” she said.

Mr Sarkozy’s strategy, meanwhile, was “hypocritical”, she said. “There’s a form of hypocrisy to say he doesn’t want an alliance with the Socialists while secretly hoping he will win their votes.”

Le Pen unbound

This, Ms Le Pen explained, showed that the centre-left and centre-right were drawing closer together. “This prefigures the bi-polarisation of French politics, with the nationalists on one side, and the globalists on the other, those who embrace globalisation and competition of all against all,” she said.

Given its score on Sunday, the FN is in a position to seize control of up to four regional councils in the run-off vote on December 13 (it secures a bonus of 25 per cent of council seats if it comes first). They will take charge of local transport and parts of the school system — a first for the party founded in 1972 by former SS sympathisers and opponents of independence for Algeria, including Jean-Marie Le Pen.

For Ms Le Pen, who succeeded her father Jean-Marie as party president in 2011, the latest elections, further validate her attempts to “detoxify” her party and broaden its base.

While maintaining an anti-immigration stance, she has banned anti-semitic references her father was fond of. She has exploited surging euroscepticism with a call to bring back national borders and a national currency. She has brandished statist ideas on the economy to lure voters in depressed industrial regions that have grown disenchanted with the socialists. The threat of Islamist terrorism has also played into her hands.

Ms Le Pen made clear that once in power her party would not simply make the trains run on time. Her first measures if she is elected president of the northern region will be to lower taxes, “implement economic patriotism,” create local jobs, “push aside” companies that employ foreign workers and cut local funding for an anti-malaria project in Senegal, she said.

“I don’t see why I would pay for mosquito nets in Senegal,” she explained, “when French autistic children have to go to Belgium to be treated or when elderly people have to move to Belgium to find a place in a retirement home.”

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