The French region of Brittany has seen broad protests in recent weeks, which could open the door to the far-right National Front in an area that has long been a bastion of moderation.
When the far-right parties of France and the Netherlands joined forces this week, declaring an intent to gain ground in upcoming European elections, the isolated region of Brittany in the far west of France was probably not their target audience.
Despite being the homeland of the founder of France's National Front (FN), Brittany has proven itself a land of moderation – rejecting extremist politics that locals say go against their Catholic ethos and sense of solidarity. In fact, political scientists who track voting patterns says Brittany is historically the region in France that votes the least for the FN.
But anger is on the rise in Brittany.
The farm and food industry, a lynchpin of the Breton economy, has seen mass layoffs. And when the government of Socialist President François Hollande attempted to put an “ecotax” on the freight trucks hauling goods, locals here rose up in protest donning “red caps” like their ancestors did during 17th century tax revolts.
The movement has since morphed into a generalized protest against the ruling party, showing the depths of discontent that often draws people to the political edges or keeps them at home on election day.
No one thinks Brittany will become a stronghold of the FN: They are not expected to do well in municipal elections in March, for example. But were the FN to gain support here in European elections, it would resonate in a region that has always eschewed extremism.
“It would have a significant symbolic impact,” says Erik Neveu, a political scientist at SciencesPo in Rennes, the capital of Brittany. “Even here, which is supposed to be unreachable territory for the FN, they are getting support.... It would 'dirty' the image that Brittany has of itself.”
On Wednesday, France's FN leader, Marine Le Pen, traveled to the Netherlands to meet with far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to launch a "historic" alliance for next year's European elections. Extremist parties, many of whom are also euroskeptic, are expected to make significant inroads in May elections, as European countries struggle to turn around economic malaise and keep voters happy.
A poll in October by the French group Ifop, for example, showed that 24 percent of French respondents said they'd vote for the FN in European elections, putting the party as the national favorite ahead of the ruling Socialist Party and the center-right Popular Movement (UMP). In the previous election cycle in 2009 the FN received only 6.3 percent of votes.
But in presidential elections, Brittany showed little appetite for the FN. While Ms. Le Pen won 18 percent of votes nationally, in Brittany the rate was significantly lower at 13.4 percent, according to figures from France's interior ministry. In fact, 56 percent of Bretons voted for President Hollande, well above the national rate of 51 percent.
Jean-Luc Richard, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Rennes, says that local idiosyncrasies explain Breton voting tendencies. Brittany has a long Catholic tradition that has been repelled by the message of the FN. It was for decades a land of emigration, making it more open to outsiders in general, and at the same time has far fewer immigrants as a percentage of the population than other parts of France. (The FN gains much support on its anti-immigrant platform.)
The nationalist message of the FN also clashes with the culturally autonomous identity of the people of Brittany, with Celtic influences and its own regional language. “People in Brittany are proud to be French,” he says, “but they are proud to be from Brittany too.”
The FN has already made inroads in the deep, rural areas of Brittany, those farthest away from urban centers, says Mr. Richard. “The farther away you are from the cities, the more you vote for the FN.”
Mr. Neveu says that the FN appeals to voters who are unhappy with the Socialists, but who voted for the left as a change from the right and now feel ready to try something new. Brittany once voted more heavily for the center-right, but since the 1970s has tended towards the center-left.
Any votes to the FN would probably be more had at the European level because unlike local races, which have a direct impact on citizens' lives, European elections are considered remote and often used as a protest vote, he says.
Le Pen has also attempted to refashion the party as a more modern, tolerant group, which draws new citizens who may have been repelled by the fascist rhetoric of her father.
“She has a new manner of promoting her ideas, in a way that's less fascist than her father,” says Pierre Petitguyet, a first-year student at SciencesPo. “But in reality, she is just as dangerous as her father.”
It is in this context at the national level that two center politicians, Jean-Louis Borloo and Francois Bayrou, announced an alliance called “The Alternative,” for France's disaffected voters, they say. At their press conference this month to launch their party, Mr. Bayrou said: “The distress [in France] is so great that democracy itself is in danger if we can’t renew the hope and conviction of the people.”
Their local representative in Rennes is Fabrice Marzin, who sits on the city council.
“One of the main reasons we are running [in upcoming elections] is to fight against the rise of extremism,” Mr. Marzin says in a local pub in the city center of Rennes. His group, locally called the Citizen's Alliance, made it into the second round of city elections in 2008, the first time there was a “third” party on the ballot in over 30 years, he says.
He says that since its founding, the FN had no chance in Brittany – but that could change. “Until now, there had been a good economic situation here,” he says of the food and agricultural industry that grew in power from the '70s, as well as a car manufacturing and high-tech industry. “But now people think there is no future. This is new to us.”
This anxiety is reflected in the “red cap” movement. Their protest this month attracted 30,000 residents. The FN is not behind these marches, but it is the local expression of a national discontent that has drawn others to the FN, or to the far-left, and in Brittany.
Thierry Merret, a leader of the “red caps” and president of the local agricultural union in Finistere, says that many in his protest movement voted for Hollande but now feel disillusioned by the ruling party, and so might abstain from voting, tipping the balance in the favor of extremist groups.
“We are worried we'll have an evolution that we don't want,” he says.