Harsh truths for French Socialists

PS

It has been a good week for François Hollande. On the weekend, a ‘historic’ deal was reached at the Paris climate summit, which earned French diplomacy a lot of praise. On Sunday evening, the final outcome of the French regional elections were much better than expected, with five wins out of 13 new ‘big’ regions, and no victories for the Front National. One month after the shocking Paris attacks, this will have come as a great relief to the French president. Yet, there are no reasons to cheer and on the horizon the 2017 presidential election still looks like a very high hurdle.

Let’s start with the good news. Faced with the prospect of up to four FN wins in the second round of the regional elections, the French turned out in much higher numbers on Sunday. From 50 per cent, the participation rate was up to 58.5 per cent. This explains largely how centre-left and centre-right candidates managed to beat Marine Le Pen in the North region, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in Provence, and her right-hand man Florian Philippot in East. With additional support for mainstream candidates in numbers, the FN vote automatically declined. The outcome shows that there is still an overwhelming anti-FN majority in France. Even if Le Pen makes it to the second round of the presidential election in 2017, she should be easily defeated.

Other good news includes the strength of the new centre-left strongholds, which were instrumental in Hollande’s victory in 2012: Brittany and the South-west (a bow stretching from Brest to Montpellier). These are relatively dynamic, young and socially more cohesive regions compared to FN territories, which combine struggling rural and post-industrial areas (North-east) and the elderly electorate (South-east). Where it stood in the second round, the Socialist party also managed to appeal to Green and far-left voters, implying that the left’s unity is not yet a reality of the past, at least in electoral terms. Finally, Hollande’s personal ratings are on the rise and polls suggest that if Nicolas Sarkozy was the rightwing candidate in 2017, they would be neck-to-neck. The former president is seen as the loser of these elections as his rebranded party, Les Républicains (the former UMP), has failed to reap the benefits of the Socialist government’s economic and social difficulties.

Now for the bad news. In two regions where it came third behind the FN and LR, but was allowed to stand in second round, the PS had to ‘commit suicide’, ie to withdraw their lists. The PS leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis and the prime minister Manuel Valls both insisted that PS voters should give their votes to the centre-right candidates. The ‘front républicain’ seems to have worked well in the North and in Provence, but counterfactual evidence is thin. Where the Socialists refused to step down (in Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardennes), the FN candidate did not win either, thanks to higher turnoutFrance elections. In any case, the PS will be absent in two significant regional assemblies, letting the FN and LR run the show. The fact that the favour of withdrawal was not reciprocated by LR where the PS came second behind the FN is telling about the implausibility of ‘grand coalition’ politics in France. In an electoral system strongly biased towards bipolarisation, the surge of a third force outside the mainstream means that there will be only one seat for two candidates.

Beyond electoral tactics, there are deeply worrying long-term trends, not only for the Socialists but for the entire French political class. In the first round of the regional elections, 64 per cent of young people (18-30 years old) abstained, thereby signalling the lack of interest in and rejection of politics. In number of votes, the FN reached its highest level ever on Sunday, with 6.6 million. Despite the scaremongering by mainstream parties, it gained 300,000 votes between the first and the second round. This was higher than the 6.4 million votes Le Pen received in the first round of the presidential election in 2012, when the turnout was much higher.

This is the ‘new normal’ of French politics: highly mobilised populists which represent for many – especially the young in rural areas – some form of hope, mainstream parties which are unable to reinvent themselves and keep offering the electorate the same old soundbites and faces, awkward appeals to block the FN at any price which risk further alienating the most insecure fringes of the electorate. Unless socioeconomic conditions improve spectacularly in the next year, and the EU and international context becomes less toxic, it is hard to see how the FN wave might recede. The Socialist government has 12 months in which to demonstrate its ability to take game-changing measures, and give France that sense of direction it has been asking for now for far too long.

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Renaud Thillaye is deputy director of Policy Network. He tweets @RThillaye

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