On December 7, a day after the first round of the French regional elections in which the Front National came first, the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro and its communist counterpart L'Humanité both ran the same headline: 'Le choc' - 'The shock'. The worrying predominance of the far-right party in 6 of 13 regions produced the same reaction in two very different media outlets, but it was hardly a shock for anyone with eyes to see. The party led by Marine Le Pen has been a major player in all recent elections, local and European, and has set the pace in the political race since her father Jean-Marie reached the second round of the Presidential election in 2002. That was a shock then. Not now. Not 13 years on.

In 2002 there was already a mixture of defiance against traditional parties, multiple candidacies and high abstention which led to the elimination of the left-wing candidate and the rise of the Front National to the second round. In 2015, the abstention rate of 50 % automatically inflated the votes for the extremist party which went on to convince 28 % of voters. Among the 18 to 24 years olds, 64 % didn't make it to the polling station, and for those who did, 33 % cast a vote in favour of a Front National candidate. Democratic apathy is one thing but let's face it: in France today, there are 6 million people who are supporting a racist and Islamophobic party. According to the head of the poll institute Harris Interactive, "the Front National is considered not so much as a vote of protest but as a force of change among the youth who think that its candidates are younger and more approachable".

The high rate of unemployment and the lack of education of the supporters of the Front National is often emphasized. But it is not the only explanation. An article in last week's left-wing weekly L'Obs profiled 12 citizens who had recently joined the Front National. They all had qualified jobs - teacher, graphic designer, accountant, sales manager. They all expressed fear: of terrorism, of Islam, of migrants, of losing their identity in a multicultural society, of losing power in the world. They ranted about pork-free school meal options and the ban on nativity scenes in public buildings (in France, secularism or 'laïcité' gives freedom to all religions as long as they don't interfere with public affairs). The far-right movement capitalizes on that fear, giving hope in the future with recipes from the past.

Many supporters of the FN claim France hasn't 'given them a go' or that they are the best of a bad bunch. They rage against the elite in power from left to right who haven't been able to curb the rise of unemployment over decades, ignoring the fact that Marine Le Pen comes for a privileged background and never had problems making ends meet herself. With the next presidential election in 2017, the nationalist leader is dangerously close to 'the threshold of power', to quote a headline from the politically independent daily Le Parisien. As demographer Hervé Le Bras rightly pointed out: "Those who say 'Let's try them for five years and if we're not happy we'll get rid of them at the next election' don't realize that it's more difficult to undo an extremist party than a democratic one."

In the face of this rising tide, the so-called elite seem powerless. Politicians call for unity, but their inability to renew themselves is part of the problem. Journalist Eric Mettout of centrist magazine L'Express summed up the opinion of many of his colleagues when he wrote on his blog: "If we don't talk about it (the Front National), we lose. If we denounce it, we lose. If we don't denounce it, we lose." Comedian Dany Boon urged his fellow citizens around Calais in the north of France to resist the extremes, but he was lambasted on Facebook for being a tax exile in London. Writer Raphaël Glucksmann explained on Canal+ TV channel: "There's no point in political leaders saying 'don't vote for Front National' when they are responsible for creating a blocked society. There's no point in intellectuals and artists saying 'we have to live together in a multicultural society' when they have left ghettos expand in the outskirts of cities. We are all a bit hypocritical. It's time to stop shouting slogans and start producing ideas and projects for this country."

The problem is, France hasn't been able to generate a positive political alternative similar to Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece or the SNP in Scotland. Its main parties are exhausted, its leaders in Paris cut detached from reality - even the Greens who should be at the forefront of the fight for progressive politics are mired in divisions.

So will the country of Voltaire manage to produce fresh ideas before 2017? The Front National represents the only different option to have emerged recently, but its fearmongering strategy is a dead-end. It goes to show that in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, the district where the January and November terrorist acts took place, the party only got 7.5 % of the votes last Sunday. It is a multicultural area, and it was not defeated by fear.