CALAIS, France — French voters turned out in droves Sunday to prevent a surging anti-establishment, anti-immigration party from capturing regional office, a week after the once-fringe group shocked many by leading the nationwide vote in the first round of elections.
As the votes were counted, the initial results made clear that the National Front had been barred from office, and they reinforced the party’s narrative that a sizable minority of France’s citizens are being shut out from power. The group, which has campaigned to stop immigration, slash benefits to non-citizens and restrict France’s ties to the European Union, has already shifted France’s debate around immigration, pushing mainstream leaders to take a harder line against refugees and non-citizens.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen, considered by some to be Europe’s Donald Trump, tailored her message to disaffected voters who feel stuck in the mire of their nation’s listless economy. With a charismatic personality that contrasts with the introverted President François Hollande, Le Pen was powering into the top rung of French politics even before a year bookended by terrorist attacks in Paris and dominated by a refugee crisis in between.
“Election after election, the surging national current is relentless,” Le Pen said in a defiant concession speech. “Those who are in favor of globalization want France to disappear. Those who are against want France to remain for all of you.”
Voter turnout was significantly higher on Sunday than a week prior, at 59 percent compared with 50 percent, suggesting that many had come to the polls specifically to keep the National Front from office. Le Pen captured 43 percent of the vote in her northern French region after Hollande’s Socialists pulled their candidate and threw their support behind the center-right candidate. Across the nation, preliminary results showed the National Front winning about 30 percent of the vote.
Chastened political leaders from the dominant center-left and center-right parties vowed to be more responsive to the concerns of those who voted for the National Front.
“Tonight we are not really relieved. The danger of the extreme right has not been eliminated,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a center-left Socialist. “All of this forces us to listen to the French more, and to act relentlessly, more quickly.”
Sunday’s poor results notwithstanding, the National Front’s policies have already reshaped French political life and sharpened skepticism about France’s mostly Muslim immigrants. In the wake of the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people last month, Hollande echoed National Front ideas when he suggested stripping dual nationals accused of terrorism of their French citizenship. And with France’s 2017 presidential election looming, Le Pen is emerging as a powerful force who could mount a credible effort to oust the president.
Nowhere have France’s struggles been on more dramatic display than in Calais, a windswept coastal city where 5,000 asylum seekers are encamped near the railroad tracks that lead into the Channel Tunnel connecting to Britain. Calais was long a working-class stronghold, but many of its factories have sputtered out of business in recent years. And with refugees now an omnipresent sight in the bedraggled city center, many residents say they fear for their safety.
In the Fort Nieulay section of Calais, where 15-story housing blocks jostle with 19th-century brick warehouses, many voters said they were fed up with a Parisian political class that, they contended, rarely ventures far from the gilded halls of power.
“We’ve tried the other parties. We might as well try the National Front,” said Mathieu Coze, 30, a train engineer who voted at a polling station in a maze of blocky, gray high-rise apartment buildings. “The National Front has always talked about migrants. We’ve already lost a lot from what our fathers and grandfathers fought for,” he said.
Other residents said the migration crisis had taken over their lives.
“Every night we hear helicopters checking to make sure migrants aren’t trying to get through,” said Arnaud Guellaen, 48, a high school physical education teacher who said he voted for the National Front.
Residents of the squalid refugee camp called “the Jungle” said Sunday that the inhospitable message had been received loud and clear. Five police vans kept watch over anyone who tried to leave. Inside the camp, inescapable mud sucked at refugees’ feet and tents provided feeble protection against a chilly drizzle.
“French people not very friendly,” said Rashid, 37, an asylum seeker from just outside Kabul who said he had been stuck in the camp for four months. He asked that his last name not be published because he feared for the safety of his family back home. “I’m not happy here,” he said, gesturing at a thin blanket pinned to the side of his blue-tarp tent that flapped in the chilly English Channel wind.
Even in defeat, the National Front was likely to be able to hold on to a sense of victory among its supporters, said Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst at the Center for Political Research at Paris’s Sciences Po.
“They are the victims of the system, the voice of the people that no one wants to hear, the voice of the working class,” he said.
Le Pen has engaged in a years-long effort to overhaul the party started by her father, Jean-Marie, who embraced anti-Semitic views and minimized the Holocaust. The younger Le Pen has repackaged herself as a clarion voice for the working class and struggling small-business owners. She has buried many of the same messages as her father in friendlier language, such as emphasizing France’s secular values, a move that critics say is coded language that targets Muslims.
Marine Le Pen, like Trump, has capitalized on a sense that establishment politicians care more about their own survival than about the fate of those who have not prospered for decades. But unlike the American billionaire, Le Pen has been more careful than Trump to avoid embracing policies that seem outright racist or directed against specific religions. She declined last week to endorse his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Le Pen “has a punch that the rest of the political class doesn’t,” said Nonna Mayer, a political analyst at the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po. “Even if they are not in office, they weigh on the political debate, and many of the mainstream political parties try to copy them.”
Cléophée Demoustier contributed to this report.