Elections being held today (Sunday) in France are both supremely unimportant and highly significant.

They’re unimportant because they’re for France’s second tier of local government, the departments – intermediate between regions and municipalities – and departments have few powers (various reformers have proposed getting rid of departmental government altogether). Moreover, today’s voting is just for the first round; actual control of most departments will depend on the second round of voting in a week’s time.

But they are significant because for the first time that I’m aware of in a western democracy in my lifetime, a fascist party is in contention to take first place.

As Friday’s headline in Le Monde puts it, it’s been “a campaign eclipsed by the menace of the National Front.” With its media-friendly leader Marine Le Pen, the far-right party has led more often than not in the opinion polls. The last Ipsos poll puts it one point behind the centre-right UMP, 30% to 29%; rival Ifop has those positions reversed.

Those numbers will not translate into anything like National Front majorities in departmental councils. The two-round voting substantially reproduces an Australian-style preferential system; there is no proportionality, so hostility from the established parties – muted in the case of the centre-right, much less so on the left and centre-left – will reduce the far right to fewer seats than its raw proportion of the vote would suggest.

(It’s tempting to describe this as a system of “single-member electorates”, because they work that way for purpose of party representation, but in fact candidates are nominated and elected in pairs, one man and one woman – a new move to combat long-standing under-participation of women.)

But even with the system working against it, and even if it comes second in the overall tally, the National Front has made a huge advance towards major-party status. It has also made itself into the key campaign issue.

For president François Hollande and his Socialist Party, the threat of the far right is at least something that they can use as a unifying force. Deeply divided on economic policy and trailing badly in the polls, the centre-left is playing the fascist card for all it’s worth, painting itself as the only reliable defender of republican values.

The centre-right opposition starts in a stronger position but has a more difficult game to play. It has shifted rightwards, trying to capitalise on the concerns of the National Front’s voters without seeming to be following its lead. If the strategy works, it could neutralise the far right in something like the way John Howard dealt with One Nation. If it doesn’t, the UMP could be discredited with a large segment of moderate opinion.

For former president Nicolas Sarkozy, however, now at the head of the UMP and plotting a comeback campaign in 2017, moderation seems not to be his chosen route. Having once blamed France for not properly integrating its non-white immigrants, he now blames the immigrants themselves for not assimilating and boasts of his role in having opposed Turkish membership of the EU. In an echo of the divisions besetting David Cameron’s Conservatives, a substantial section of the UMP now seems willing to turn its back on the whole idea of free movement of people.

In the short term, the ideological strain on his opponents is slight consolation for Hollande. But looking towards 2017, his best hope is that in the second round of the presidential election he will face not Sarkozy or (even worse) a UMP moderate, but Le Pen herself. Today’s results may give some sign of how likely that scenario is.

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