[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
I had hoped to get this post up earlier this week but better late than never. There were no big surprises in Sunday’s 2nd round (for my quick take on the 1st round, go here). As one knows, it was a smashing victory for the UMP-UDI (as expected) and a severe defeat for the Socialists and the rest of the left (though it could have been worse). As for the FN, the result was en demi-teinte. Marine Le Pen & Co had hoped to take two departments, the Vaucluse and l’Aisne, but took neither, and the 31 cantons the frontistes won overall was short of their expectations. But the FN’s national score—25% in the 1st round, 22% in the 2nd— confirmed its enracinement at the local level and, as the commentators and pundits are putting it, France’s new political tripolar reality. Tripartisme is the new watchword in French politics.
A few comments on the three poles coming out of the election.
The UMP: The headline in Tuesday’s Le Monde Tuesday reads “Nicolas Sarkozy conforté,” i.e. Sarkozy has been reinforced by the election result. Perhaps, though the election was not about him and it is most unlikely that the excellent result for his party was due to anything in particular he did or said. Given the unpopularity of President Hollande and the Socialists, the UMP was going to benefit no matter what, in the same way as the PS did in regional and local elections when the UMP was in power in the 2002-12 period. And the new binôme system was tailor-made for the UMP—merci aux socialistes!—as it rendered almost effortless the constitution of tickets with the UDI, thus sealing the right and center alliance for this election. As for notable things Sarkozy said during the campaign, there was mainly his declaration supporting the UMP mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône on ending substitute meals when pork is served in school cafeterias (meals that had been offered in cafeterias without debate or controversy for decades). For good measure, Sarko reiterated his endorsement of a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves by students in universities. With his peremptory pronouncements on these non-issues—fabricated de toute pièce in the ambient climate of anti-Muslim bigotry—Sarkozy demonstrated once again that he is the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, utterly devoid of principles, shame, or republican values. In a live call-in studio interview on RTL the Tuesday before last, Sarkozy was politely challenged on the school menu question by a listener named Hisham. Sarko’s response was to lecture citizen Hisham on laïcité (as if the 1905 law or even the most militant conception of laïcité de combat speaks to the burning question of school lunch menus). He was so patronizing and odious that I turned off the radio. I couldn’t bear to listen to him, as I cannot bear to watch him on television.
Sarkozy’s grotesquely opportunistic, demagogic fishing expedition in Front National waters was too much even for his colleagues in the UMP leadership, not only the honest republicans among them—Alain Juppé, François Fillon, Bruno Le Maire—who immediately spoke out against Sarko’s declaration, but also those politically close to him, e.g. Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, a sarkozyste historique, very right-wing himself, and whose city is equally right-wing, but who, in implicitly critiquing his friend, asserted that there would be no question of ending substitute school meals in his city (Muslims are numerous in Nice and Estrosi is not going to gratuitously pick a nasty fight with them). Rachida Dati, who owes her political existence to Sarkozy, also backhandedly rejected her erstwhile patron’s declaration, calling it a “non-subject” that could only “divide” and “fracture” French society. For his part, former Sarkozy speechwriter Henri Guaino—the “left hemisphere” of Sarkozy’s political brain at the Elysée—was biting in his reaction to his former boss and those in the UMP base who agreed with him on the pork issue, deploring the “stoking of the flames of anger” and rhetorically asking what image the UMP would give “if it whipped up one sector of the population against another, of non-Muslims against Muslims” (which, pour mémoire, was precisely Sarkozy’s presidential M.O. under Guaino’s watch). And even new FN municipal governments—e.g. in Fréjus and Cogolin—said that school cafeterias under their authority would continue to serve substitute meals.
But Sarkozy, whose political instincts were reformatted by Patrick Buisson—the “right hemisphere” of his presidential brain—couldn’t care less what his associates—most of whom he badmouths behind their backs anyway—think. What he knows is that a sizable portion of the UMP base—if not the majority—is far to the right and shares the same preoccupations and world-views as does the FN on immigration and national identity. The boundary separating the UMP’s Tea-Partyized right flank and the FN is increasingly blurred. So in order to persuade his voters not to defect to Le Pen, he’s going to talk like Le Pen. He already started doing this during the 2007 campaign and doubled down from 2010 on. But on the question of making electoral deals with the FN, or possibly entering into coalitions in elected assemblies, Sarkozy—along with the rest of the UMP leadership—has been intransigent: there will be no pacts whatever with the frontistes. While the barrier separating the two parties is becoming increasingly porous, the UMP’s firewall against dealing with the FN, even at the local level, will not be breached. This is not a matter of ideology or high-minded principle—though there are indeed irreconcilable differences between the two parties on certain issues, notably Europe—but rather a pragmatic choice by the UMP for survival. The FN can only grow at the UMP’s expense and become the nº1 party of the right—and thus the natural alternative to the Socialists, which is, of course, Marine Le Pen’s goal—if it supplants the UMP. If the UMP deals with the FN in any way, the firewall will cede and with an inevitable torrent of defections from the former toward the latter, not only of voters but also of élus at the local level. Marine Le Pen & Co would be the sole beneficiary of any electoral pact with the UMP (as was the PS during the years of the Programme Commun with the PCF). So the hostility of Sarkozy and the rest of the UMP leadership to the FN is driven less by ideology than a rational instinct for survival.
In my post on the UMP six months ago, I categorically stated that I did not believe for a minute that Sarkozy would succeed in his comeback and impose himself as the UMP’s candidate in ’17. I still hold to this. We’ll have to see what effect, if any, Sunday’s outcome will have on his poll numbers but, for the moment, they’re not good. In the latest IPSOS baromètre—the best poll out there measuring the popularity of politicians IMO—Sarkozy is at 35% positive and 60% negative. And outside the hardcore UMP base, large majorities of those polled over the past three years—including non-UMP right voters and centrists—have consistently said they don’t want to hear about another Sarkozy presidency. And though he’s the champion of the UMP base, a sizable portion of party members do not want him, as was revealed by Bruno Le Maire’s unexpectedly high 30% score in the internal party election last November 29th. Sarkozy, ceding to the insistence of the majority in the UMP’s Bureau Politique, had already accepted à contrecœur the principle of a presidential primary open to all voters of the right and center (and not just card-carrying UMP members). The alliance with the UDI in the departmental elections—and with Sarko’s buddy-buddy campaign appearances with UDI president Jean-Christophe Lagarde—made an open primary a done deal (it will be held in November 2016 and with much the same organization as the 2011 PS primary). If centrists and UMP non-sarkozyistes coalesce around Alain Juppé’s candidacy, Juppé will beat Sarko—period—and particularly if their respective poll numbers stay about where they are today (Juppé, who remains the most popular French politician, is at 52% positive/33% negative in the March IPSOS baromètre). As one knows from presidential primaries in the US—plus the French Socialists’s in 2011—the primordial consideration for the majority of primary voters is winning the election, of having the strongest possible candidate to beat the opponent. Exceptional moments excepted, everything else is secondary.
The primary will hardly be a cakewalk for Juppé, though, as the immigration and national identity questions are sure to be central and on which Sarkozy is more in tune with the Tea-Partyized UMP base—a base that increasingly rejects Juppé, seeing him as a centrist, even a crypto-gauchiste (on economic issues the proclaimed UMP candidates are all playing the same broken record—baisse-des-impôts-baisse-des-charges-moins-de-fonctionnaires-réculer-l’âge-de-la-retraite-blah-blah—which everyone’s heard thousands of times, stokes the enthusiasm of no audience, and shifts no votes). The only thing for Juppé—who’s as principled a politician as one will find—to do will be to defend classic neo-Gaullist republican values, to stand squarely against the phobia of Islam and Muslims that is infecting public discourse in France. If he does this and in a principled way—again, in invoking republican values—it will work for him, I guarantee it. He’ll attract more votes than he’ll lose. The campaign is sure to be a nasty one, particularly if Sarkozy underhandedly sponsors a centrist candidate (e.g. J-C Lagarde) or coaxes other UMP tenors into the race (Le Maire, NKM…) in order to split the Juppé vote, which he’s entirely capable of doing (though a manifest subterfuge by Sarkozy will render inevitable a centrist/moderate right candidacy in the general election, e.g. François Bayrou or even Juppé himself). Whatever happens, the UMP primary will be of capital importance, as whoever wins it will be the prohibitive favorite in 2017 and with a huge UMP majority in the National Assembly that will follow.
The Socialists: It is hard to overstate the calamity that has befallen the PS. On Sunday the Socialists lost 28 of the 60 departments whose councils they headed and several hundred conseillers départementaux. The bérézina included longtime departmental fiefdoms or electoral bases of PS heavyweights that fell to the UMP: Corrèze (François Hollande), Nord (Martine Aubry), Seine-Maritime (Laurent Fabius), Essonne (Manuel Valls), Saône-et-Loire (Arnaud Montebourg), and Deux-Sèvres (Ségolène Royal), to which one may add the Territoire du Belfort, Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s longtime bastion. And then there was the Bouches-de-Rhône (biggest city: Marseille), run by the Socialists for an unbroken 70 years and which the UMP won. To all this may be added the disastrous municipal elections of March 2014, in which the PS lost 133 of the 371 municipalities of over 9,000 inhabitants that it governed (of 1,018 in the country) and several thousand municipal councillors (h/t Gérard Courtois for these figures). One shudders to contemplate the wipe-out that awaits the PS in December’s regional elections.
This is, quite simply, a catastrophe for the Socialists. As a party where élus have been a core component of the (dues-paying) membership, the loss of these thousands of elected politicos at the local level will seriously undermine not only the PS’s ability to seriously wage future elections but also the party’s finances in the here and now. And the party’s downward spiral risks accelerating, as disaffected and/or demoralized card-carrying militants decline to renew their membership. It is entirely possible that the PS may soon have fewer dues-paying members than the Front National. The PS is in the deepest hole in its modern history, worse than after the 1969 presidential election or the 1993 legislatives. The nadir of 1969 was followed two years later by the Epinay congress, François Mitterrand taking over the party, and a clear plan to win national elections. And Lionel Jospin emerged as l’homme providentiel after the 1993 debacle. There are no hommes (ou femmes) providentiel(le)s in the PS today. François Hollande’s spike in the polls in the wake of Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher was short-lived. Having leapt from 13% approval to 38% in the IPSOS baromètre, he’s now back down to 26%. Barring another national drama, he’s not likely to move significantly upward from here on out. If Hollande nonetheless decides to run for reelection, his chances of suffering a humiliating 1st round elimination are on the order of 98.5%. But if he throws in the towel on ’17—an unambiguous admission on his part of the failure of his presidency—one imagines with difficulty Manuel Valls—the failed president’s PM, thus a failure himself—being the substitute candidate. Martine Aubry is pretty much hors course—her moment has passed—as is Arnaud Montebourg, who’s now trying to make it in the private sector and isn’t really credible as a potential President of the Republic in any case. He’s too much of a gadfly. Ségolène Royal? Je ne crois pas. That leaves Laurent Fabius, who, as the elder statesman, finally respected by the public, and with nothing to lose, could save the Socialists’s honor (I advanced this hypotheses last year), but this is pure speculation on my part. In any case, a PS candidate can only be one of these aforementioned persons.
What also makes the Socialists’s situation worse than in ’69 or ’93 is the impossibility of any broad-based electoral pact on the left, let alone a governing coalition, or of one with the center. The 1970s saw the Programme Commun with the PCF and MRG, and Lionel Jospin’s accession paved the way for the gauche plurielle in the 1997 élections anticipées. There can be no repeat of a gauche plurielle and for reasons that do not require explanation. With the PS now firmly down the social libéral road, the chasm between it and the Front de Gauche will remain unbridgeable, indeed permanent. But the FdG itself is going nowhere. In the 1st round of the departmental elections it took 7% of the vote nationally, which is about what the FdG is worth. It will not and cannot become a French SYRIZA—i.e. the FdG can’t be anything more than what it is—for reasons I explained after the 2012 election on why Jean-Luc Mélenchon failed. If Mélenchon runs in 2017—which he may or may not—he won’t top his 11% score of 2012. And if JLM is not the FdG standard-bearer, then who? Pierre Laurent? Yeah, sure. Perhaps Clémentine Autain? She’d be okay, pour la figuration. As for the écolos, they’re in an even more pathetic state than the FdG, perpetually infantile and unable to decide if they want to participate in government with the PS—and with a couple of ministries—or exist in permanent opposition. And if a couple of écolos (e.g. Jean-Vincent Placé, Barbara Pompili) end up joining the Valls government—possibly in the next week or two—it will likely lead to a split in the already diminutive EELV.
The bottom line is that in order for a PS candidate to win a presidential election, the total stock of 1st round votes of left candidates (including extrême gauche) has to reach 43%. Anything less and the right wins. In the 1st round of the departmental elections the total left vote was 36%. It stands to reason—maybe—that PS voters who’ve sat out elections since 2012—and much of the abstention has been this—will come home, as it were, in the presidential election—if only to vote against Marine Le Pen and, in the ghastly eventuality he’s the UMP candidate, Sarkozy—in which the participation rate is the highest (it was 79.5% in the 2012 1st round). Again, maybe. But when the Minister of the Economy and Finance in a PS government regrets that France did not reform itself in the 1980s as did Great Britain at the time—i.e. during the Margaret Thatcher era—many PS voters will wonder what it is that makes the PS a party of the left (they’ve been wondering for a couple of years now, in fact). The second bottom line: looking into the crystal ball, it will be nothing short of miraculous if the total left vote in ’17 reaches even 40%. Third bottom line: the French left, as we’ve known it, is finished. If the PS does not thoroughly reconstitute itself after the inevitable debacle in ’17, change its name (getting rid of the “socialist,” a 19th-20th century concept now devoid of meaning), and forge an alliance with a reconstituted center, it will be out of power for the foreseeable future.
Front National: As mentioned above, the FN won 31 cantons on Sunday, meaning it will send twice that number of élus to the Conseils Départmentaux. Compared to the Front’s situation before the election—with its one conseiller général in all of France—this is an impressive result—though in view of the 1,073-odd 2nd round races the FN contested, maybe it’s not so impressive. Most of the cantons the FN took are in its strongholds in the northeast—notably the Pas-de-Calais and l’Aisne, where it won six and four, respectively—and the southeast, notably the Vaucluse, Var, and Hérault, taking three in each. One FN victory outside its traditional terre de prédilection worth noting was in Le Nord-Médoc (Gironde), which includes some of the greatest Bordeaux wine-producing communes, e.g. Pauillac (Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour…) and Saint-Estèphe. One may also note that FN binômes received high scores in the eleven communes the Front won in last year’s municipal elections, which may be interpreted as a thumbs up by local voters to the FN’s management of the towns it now runs. The FN will certainly do very well in December’s regional elections, particularly as these use proportional representation—and with a bonus for the list coming in first place, which almost guarantees that the FN will outright win one, two, or even more of the redrawn, enlarged regions.
But this will in no way signify that the FN is en route to national power or that Marine Le Pen has a chance of winning in ’17. At this point it looks probable that she will make it to the 2nd round of the presidential election but, as I explained in some detail seven months ago, she won’t win it. Not a chance. The reasons are several but I will reiterate just three here, the principal one being her doggedly high negatives in the polls. The FN has gone from one historic election result to another over the past three years but this has not markedly affected MLP’s poll numbers. E.g. in the latest IPSOS baromètre, MLP is at 29% positive and 65% negative. These have been more or less her numbers for the past four years (they were worse before 2011). At only two brief moments (in 2013) has her negative rating dipped below 60%. Repeating what I wrote last September, it is quite simply impossible for any candidate to be elected President of the Republic—or, barring some highly unlikely scenario, to any public office—with these poll numbers. And if MLP’s negatives have not significantly dropped over the past year in view of her serial successes and high media presence, there is no a priori reason to think they will in the coming two years.
A second reason MLP and the FN won’t be governing France after ’17 is that no party in the French system can come to power nationally without allies; or, if it somehow succeeds in doing so, cannot govern by itself for any length of time. The UMP needs the centrists, just as the PS needs the PRG, écolos, and whatever other minuscule left formation it can add to its coalition. The FN has no allies and will not have any in ’17. As asserted above, the UMP, thinking of its integrity and survival, will not allow its firewall against the frontistes to be breached, and one does not imagine Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or the moribund Mouvement pour la France throwing in their lot with Marine LP. So once the FN reaches its electoral ceiling—probably in the low-mid 20s in a high participation election (+70%)—it will likely settle into a role akin to that played by the PCF in the 1950s and ’60s: an anti-system party aggregating a fifth of the electorate, with a presence at the local level but excluded from national power (though the FN will never hold a candle to the counter society, dense civil society network, or municipal power base of the PCF in its heyday).
A third reason. The FN’s program is not credible—and not just in the eyes of persons who think like me but in those of the majority of voters. Putting aside the questions of immigration and national identity—which are primordial for the totality of FN supporters, but also for many in the UMP—the FN’s positions are rejected by large majorities of the electorate. E.g. its stance on Europe, notably on quitting the euro—and, consequently, the EU—is endorsed by only a quarter of those responding to the question in public opinion polls. There is no way the French electorate will vote a party into power that has pledged to carry out such a project. And then there’s Marine LP’s economic program, which is being labeled “leftist” but is more of a half-baked Bonapartist étatisme—an old strain on the French right—mixed with the FN’s traditional economic libéralisme adhered to by her father. As Le Canard Enchaîné detailed in its March 11th issue, the FN’s economic proposals are a Santa Claus grab bag of tax cuts, tax increases, mandated pay increases, mandated price decreases, nationalizations, planning, lessened regulations, increased regulations, protectionist barriers but with increased exports… And, naturally, la préférence nationale in employment, social insurance, and everything else. The numbers—the few that are offered—don’t begin to add up. The whole thing is preposterous, unserious, and disconnected from reality. In a presidential debate Marine LP would be shredded into little pieces by Juppé, Sarkozy, Hollande, or anyone else she would face. The program, moreover, is the brainchild of a single member of the FN leadership, the énarque and ex-chevènementiste Florian Philippot, who is close to MLP but not overly appreciated in the party as a whole, as one learned at the FN’s congress last November. The gravity of the FN’s middle class base in the Midi—incarnated in the person of rising star Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, whose rhetoric is more akin to her grandfather’s than her aunt’s—and everywhere else outside declining industrial towns of the northeast remains libéral, closer to the US Republican party on economic questions than to the Front de Gauche.
I have more to say on all this but will reserve it for later. In the meantime, here’s the cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo, which (rhetorically) asks the exact right question.
UPDATE: My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has a post on my post, in which he differs with my view on Sarkozy’s vs. Juppé’s prospects in the UMP primary. Art thinks that Sarko has indeed consolidated his position as UMP leader and that only the courts can stop his triumphal march to victory in the primary. Perhaps. I should say here that in hypothesizing on all this, I have violated my own longstanding principle of not speculating on the outcome of elections more than a year before they take place. But I can’t help myself here and, in any case, do think I’m right. Art is correct in reminding us of Sarkozy’s political skills but one must also keep in mind the dislike of Sarko—indeed intense antipathy toward him—not only on the left but also among a not insignificant portion of voters on the right and center. As for crossover voters in the primary, it is possible that some will come from the left—though probably not in the hundreds of thousands—but even more possible they’ll come from the far right, of Marine Le Pen supporters out to scuttle Sarkozy’s candidacy. On verra. In any case, the only thing to do will be to watch the polls. If Sarkozy’s positives are into the 40s in mid-late 2016, I’ll say he wins. But if they remain in the 30s, I say no.
BTW, Art has an op-ed on the departmental elections, published on the Al Jazeera America website, “The far right is redrawing France’s political map.”
2nd UPDATE: Le Monde has an interview, in its April 4th issue, with the well-known academic specialist of the French Socialists, Gérard Grunberg, in which he says that “the left has never been so weak and divided” as it is today. Grunberg, like me, is not optimistic for the future of the PS, or the French left more generally. BTW, I learn from the intro to the interview that the website Telos—that Grunberg is a director of—has been back up and running since January, after having been discontinued in 2013. This is one of the best, most intellectually high quality websites of analysis and reflection on politics and economics that one will find in the French language—and whose political sensibility is precisely my own. I’m glad to see it back.
3rd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer has a pertinent blog post (April 5th) on “The conservatism of the French.”