The debacle was even more monumental than expected. It was historic, worse than 1983. The left—mainly PS—lost 155 communes with a population of 9,000 and over, 49 between 30 and 100K, and 8 cities of over 100K. Those who’ve read about it elsewhere already know the story: the PS managed to save Paris (Anne Hidalgo), Lyon (Gérard Collomb), Lille (Martine Aubry), Strasbourg, and Nantes—and, thanks to a merged list with the Front de Gauche, picked up Avignon from the UMP (and fended off the FN) plus a few others—but it was the Berezina just about everywhere else. Toulouse, which the PS won in 2008, went to the UMP, along with numerous cities that have been Socialist/left bastions for decades, even a century: e.g. Limoges, Belfort, Nevers, Dunkerque, Chambéry, Amiens… The dense network of PS-run municipalities that was painstakingly built up by François Hollande during his period as party first secretary—and particularly in the western part of the country—was decimated in one fell swoop. After the 2008 elections the PS was looking to be the party of cities, the one with the strongest local base, but now the UMP/UDI have taken that mantle (and with the UDI, led by François Bayrou in Pau, taking its share of communes, meaning that it will be a big center-right player in the coming years). Even the PS victories in the large aforementioned cities have to be relativized, as the intercommunal governing structures that have been established over the years, and particularly since the 1990s—and which will progressively supplant the communes themselves in local decision-making—, will also pass to the right. So even though Martine Aubry won reelection in Lille she was not happy last night, as the UMP took nearby Roubaix and Tourcoing, meaning that she will lose the presidency of the Lille Métropole Communauté Urbaine, which is almost as important to her as being mayor of her city. As for the future Métropole du Grand Paris, the UMP (Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet?) may have enough votes to control it when that time comes (January 2016).
On this score, the results in the famous ‘red belt’ around Paris were also calamitous for the left (PCF and PS), which, entre autres, lost the communes in the neuf-trois I mentioned in my post last week: Bobigny, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Le Blanc-Mesnil, Livry-Gargan, Saint-Ouen, and Villepinte. By my count the PCF only has six communes left in the Seine-Saint-Denis. And to the list of setbacks one may add Villejuif in the Val-de-Marne, which has been Communist since the 1920s but was taken by the UMP, whose list, in a merger contre nature, included a local EELV fed up with the eternal PCF rule over the town; among the renegade Villejuifois écolos was the gauchiste economist Alain Lipietz (he and the others have been suspended from the EELV for their transgression). My (Algerian origin) in-laws there are no doubt content with the outcome (I’ll have to call them this week), BTW, as their property taxes will most certainly not be raised by the new UMP-led administration.
Local taxes were a big issue in this election and across the board. They’ve gone up significantly and just about everywhere, in communes run by the right as well as the left. E.g. in my very right-wing banlieue, the taxe d’habitation has increased by at least 25%—maybe even more (I’d have to do the calculation)—since the 2008 election, and which was one of the factors in the defeat of the incumbent mayor (UDI/ex-UMP) at the hands of his erstwhile (UMP) associate-turned-rival. The ras-le-bol over inexorably rising local taxes will be a big challenge to all the new mayors, as they try to maintain local services plus deal with already high municipal indebtedness.
As for the Front National, it won 11 communes. If one hasn’t yet seen the list, go here, here, or here. Notable FN victories include Marseille’s 7th sector, with a population of 150K—it will be interesting to see how the new FN mayor, Stéphane Ravier, gets along with the neighboring 8th sector mayor, la très forte en gueule Algerian-origin Samia Ghali (the only PS tête de liste to win a Marseille sector yesterday)—; Hayange in the Moselle, a dying industrial town and site of ArcelorMittal’s recently shuttered steel blast furnaces that President Hollande promised to save but could not—and whose FN mayor-elect, Fabien Engelmann, is a former trade unionist (in the formerly Communist-run CGT, from which he was expelled for joining the FN)—; and Mantes-la-Ville in the Île-de-France (Yvelines), whose FN list squeaked through to victory due to the (incomprehensible and inexcusable) inability of the two rival left lists (PS and divers gauche) to merge between the two rounds—and, irony of ironies, the mayoral candidate of one having been physically manhandled by Jean-Marie Le Pen in an infamous incident in 1997.
But it wasn’t a slam dunk for the FN yesterday, as party heavyweights Florian Philippot and Louis Aliot (Marine LP’s current S.O.) failed to win Forbach and Perpignan respectively, and Gilbert Collard bit the dust in Saint-Gilles. And it needs to be reiterated that Robert Ménard’s victorious list in Béziers was only supported by the FN, with a number of its conseillers municipaux-elect—including Ménard himself—not being FN members.
Marine Le Pen and other FN leaders swear that they’ve learned from the fiasco of the FN’s local government experience in the 1995-2002 period—notably in Toulon, Vitrolles, and Marignane—, which was marked by incompetence, amateurism, and corruption—not to mention initiatives such as serving pork dishes only in school cafeterias catering to Muslim students—, and won’t repeat the mistakes. Frontiste communes will, it is promised, be governed more responsibly and professionally this time. On verra. One of the first issues the mayor-elect in Fréjus, 26-year-old David Rachline, will have to deal with is the project—currently underway—to build a mosque in the commune. One would assume that FN mayors, echoing the rhetoric of Marine LP, will take a hard-line against expressions and manifestations of “communautarisme,” a neologism that, translated into American, refers to the asserting of ethnic identities by persons of post-colonial immigrant roots, i.e. from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and which the dominant French ethos—shared by right and left alike—considers to be a bad thing (but only when it involves communities hailing from the African continent; no one cares if it’s the Portuguese, Armenians, or even Vietnamese or Chinese who do it). The younger generations from these communities are more educated, organized, and assertive in expressing ethnic identities nowadays than in the past, so if FN mairies try to pick a fight with them, a fight they will get.
In an analysis of the elections last night, Art Goldhammer wondered if the real political problem in France is less the failings of François Hollande—or of Nicolas Sarkozy before him—than of the French presidency itself, of its seeming omnipotence and the outsized expectations this generates, and that inevitably leads to disappointments on the part of the electorate. Art is absolutely right on this. As he points out, the constitution of the Fifth Republic was tailor-made for one man, Charles de Gaulle, a larger than life historical figure who returned to power at a time of grave national crisis—the Algerian war—and when France needed a strong executive who could assert primacy over the legislative branch of government (and also a seditiously-inclined military). But that historical moment is gone and not only is there no one with the stature of de Gaulle—il n’y a plus de grands hommes—but there is no justification nowadays for an advanced democracy to concentrate so much power (hors cohabitation) in the hands of the executive. It worked more or less for François Mitterrand, though he was saved by the first cohabitation, which paved the way for his reelection, and with his interminable second term ending in failure. Jacques Chirac’s presidency was a failure from almost the get go (and with him winning reelection on a silver platter thanks to the accident of the 21 avril). And the bilan of Sarkozy’s presidency—and now Hollande’s—requires no elaboration. In the case of Sarkozy and Hollande, plus Chirac during his brain-dead second term, the perversity of the omnipotent presidency has been aggravated by the quinquennat and the accident of the electoral calendar, in which the presidential and legislative elections happen one month apart, and with the legislative following the presidential—a sequencing that was decided in a law passed by Lionel Jospin’s gauche plurielle government after the 2000 referendum and was supported by the UDF (but not Chirac’s RPR). What this did was permanently hitch the fortunes of the National Assembly—elected in the wake in the presidential election, axiomatically giving the newly elected president a majority—to the President of the Republic, thus rendering it even more powerless vis-à-vis the executive. The latter calls all the shots. The problem is institutional, not linked to the personality of whoever happens to be the chief resident in the Elysée palace. So in view of the omnipotence of the President of the Republic and the expectations of the French people that he will solve all the problems—and at a time when France, which has no control over its own currency, has less power on the European and world stage than ever, and with an increasingly uncompetitive economy—, it is inevitable that his poll ratings will plummet almost as soon as he takes office and his party massacred in intermediate elections.
The next elections—after May’s European—are the regionals, in March 2015. The PS controls 21 of 22 regions in metropolitan France. Anyone want to take bets on how many they’ll be left with after that one?
ADDENDUM: The abstention rate yesterday was 38%, which is historically high for a municipal election. But the turnout was nonetheless higher than for other types of elections, notably the European. And way higher than one would ever see in an off year election in the US. If the upcoming American midterm elections could attain such a turnout, the outcome would be very different than the one we’re likely to get (and less favorable to the Republicans). Just sayin’.
UPDATE: Rue89’s Pascal Riché explains—with a certain dose of mauvaise foi, he admits—why yesterday’s result was, in fact, a setback for the Front National. Not a bad analysis, actually.