Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) party is on course to win two regions in French regional elections on Dec. 6 and Dec. 13, which would complete its transformation from a fringe party to a major political force. The resurgence of the anti-Europe, anti-immigration FN spells trouble for President François Hollande’s Socialist Party and former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right Republicans ahead of 2017’s presidential elections. Here’s what’s driving the conservative upswing:
In the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks by ISIS that left 130 dead in Paris, the FN’s anti-Islam rhetoric helped it surge in the polls. “France and the French are no longer safe,” Le Pen said, calling for borders to be closed and migrants deported, and blaming Hollande’s government for failing to protect France.
More than 878,000 migrants have arrived in Europe this year, raising concerns among the French population that there aren’t enough schools, jobs or housing to go around. The FN has tapped into such fears, with Le Pen saying all migrants should be deported, even refugees fleeing war. The party is favored to win the southern region of Marseille-Nice, where many refugees enter France through Italy.
Hollande consistently polls as the least popular President in recent history, thanks to France’s turgid economy. Sarkozy too was a deeply unpopular leader, disliked for his flashy lifestyle. And while the FN hasn’t been embraced by the mainstream, Le Pen has softened the party’s image, paving the way for a serious challenge to the status quo in 2017.
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.