Tomorrow is round two. I have a number of things to say on last Sunday’s round one result, which I’ll reserve for a longer analysis after the definitive outcome. In the meantime, a few points on the strictly electoral, horse race side of tomorrow’s vote.
First, it is impossible to predict what is going to happen. The Front National could well win three of the new enlarged regions where it finished first by a wide margin—Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie (NPDCP, where Marine Le Pen heads the list), Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA, the contours of which have not been enlarged; the head of list being Marion Maréchal-Le Pen), and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine (Grand Est; led by Marine LP’s right-hand man Florian Philippot)—and theoretically take up to six, if one adds the other three regions where it finished ahead of the Socialist and Les Républicains party lists: Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées (LRMP; led by Marine LP’s live-in companion Louis Aliot), Centre-Val-de-Loire (CVDL; Philippe Loiseau), and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (BFC; Sophie Montel).
In view of the FN’s historic 1st round score—28.4% in metropolitan France and 6.1 million votes, which is quite simply amazing given the 50% abstention rate—and first place finish nationally, it stands to reason that it should win at least something. But the Frontistes could possibly end up with nothing at all. Two polls out in the past three days—from TNS-Sofres and ELABE—have Xavier Bertrand and Christian Estrosi—who head the LR lists in NPDCP and PACA, respectively—decisively beating Marine LP and Marion M-LP, and with LR’s Philippe Richert in the Grand Est overtaking Philippot, and despite the PS’s Jean-Pierre Masseret there disobeying instructions of Socialist HQ in Paris to withdraw his list in the 2nd round and support LR against the FN; so though there will be a triangulaire, which would normally render the vote a done deal for the FN—with its 10% lead over LR—the outcome is uncertain. The track record of election polls is admittedly not excellent these days—cf. Israel, UK, Turkey—and the advance of Marine LP and Marion M-LP over their LR runner-ups is considerable (14-15%). For Bertrand and Estrosi to beat the Le Pens, the great majority of orphaned left voters—terrified by the prospect of an FN victory— would have to vote for these two high-profile right-wingers—and, in the Grand Est, to defect from the now dissident Socialist Massaret to LR’s Richert. On verra. If I were a PS voter in PACA, folding the ballot of the odiously hard-right, sarkozyste historique Estrosi into the envelope and dropping it in the ballot box would possibly be too painful to bear, though concentrating the mind on Marion M-LP, who, behind that soft-spoken persona and pretty face, is an intolerant, ideological extremist to the right of her aunt, could persuade me to bear the pain (as for Bertrand in NPDCP, he’s okay as far as LR personalities go, so no problem voting for him to knock off Marine LP).
In any case, the FN-LR duels in NPDCP and PACA are of critical importance for the future of the FN—and of French politics. Almost every contest the FN has won in a non-proportional representation election to date has been in triangulaires, i.e. with a plurality of the vote. Attaining an absolute majority in any given constituency has been beyond the FN’s ability (in legislative elections it’s happened only twice, both in the late 1980s). In the 2nd round of last March’s departmental elections, the FN won only three of the 535 duels it waged. If the FN crosses the 50% threshold tomorrow in two important regions—and with candidates named Le Pen—it will be a huge event: a stunning victory for the FN, rendering it more credible in the eyes of many voters as a party of alternance, and sending Marine LP’s 2017 ambitions into orbit.
The second point, on the PS, which took a mediocre 23.5% of the national vote: The Socialists look sure to win Brittany (defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—who is highly regarded these days—heading the list) and are well positioned in Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes (ALPC; Alain Rousset) but could lose everywhere else. Then again, the Socialists could win up to eight or nine—or even ten—regions if the stars perfectly align, i.e. if there is a flawless transfer of voters of the 1st round lists of Europe Écologie-Les Verts and Front de Gauche—which did poorly, netting 6.8% and 4.2% of the national vote respectively—a few of the lists having merged with the PS for the 2nd round but with most eliminated outright (for the stock of left votes, see the map below). For écolo and FdG voters, the question is how many will put aside their detestation of the PS—of François Hollande, Manuel Valls, Emmanuel Macron et al—to bar the route of the FN or defeat the LR of the hated Nicolas Sarkozy (particularly in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where the LR list leader is the reactionary Laurent Wauquiez). One may be cautiously optimistic that republican reflexes will prevail for gauche de la gauche voters, who will hold their noses and vote PS—and particularly in a region like LRMP, with the specter of Louis Aliot presiding the regional council in Toulouse too appalling to contemplate.
In the improbable event that the left loses LRMP to the FN, this will be a body blow to the PS that could ultimately prove fatal. The ex-Midi-Pyrénées region is a historic stronghold of the republican left and where the FN has, until recently, been insignificant. If the PS loses there tomorrow, this will be added to the disastrous performance of its lists in NPDCP and PACA last Sunday—and then the decision to withdraw them from the 2nd round altogether—which has been devastating for the party and its adherents in those regions. The Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and Bouches-de-Rhône were the principal bastions of the French Socialists throughout the 20th century, and while the latter has been trending rightward for over two decades now—and with the local PS in a state of advanced deliquescence—the former two departments have remained strong for the party. The disappearance of all PS representation in the regional councils in Lille and Marseille—and with the hundreds of salaried posts that go with this—is just so terrible for the party—and for the French left in general. PS militants and sympathizers in the two regions are shattered by what has happened. Unless the PS overperforms tomorrow, I don’t see how it can ultimately survive all this as a party in its current form. I’ll come back to this thought at a later date.
On the level of base political calculation, however, the decision of the PS to withdraw the two lists—which was announced by party First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis but certainly taken by President Hollande—can only work to the party’s benefit and regardless of tomorrow’s outcome. E.g. if Bertrand and Estrosi defeat the two Le Pens, then the Socialists can claim credit, as the LR victory will be owed to the PS’s republican reflexes in committing hara-kiri to stop the FN, but with Sarkozy’s LR having refused to do likewise for the PS. And Bertrand and Estrosi will, in principle at least, have to acknowledge their gratitude to left voters and promise not to forget about them over the coming six years. But if the Le Pens end up winning the duels, it will be seen as a catastrophic defeat for LR and, above all, Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s authority as president of his party will be severely undermined—probably fatally—and his credibility as a candidate for 2017 in tatters.
This leads to the third point, on LR, which did not do well last Sunday, taking 27.1% of the metropolitan vote—but in merged lists with the UDI and MoDem centrists (who could net up to 10% were they to run separately)—and finishing in first place in only four regions. LR will probably win a few, though only the Pays-de-la-Loire (Bruno Retailleau, president of the LR parliamentary group in the Senate, heads the list) looks fairly sure (as the PS and écolos are in conflict there). It is not out of the question, though, that LR could end up with just this one region (if it even manages that). If so, it will be the death knell for Sarkozy and his 2017 ambitions (and even if Bertrand and Estrosi win). And so much the better.
This will be excellent news if it comes to pass, as Sarkozy has shown himself during this campaign—and for the umpteenth time—to be the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, demagogically mouthing Front National rhetoric and with his trademark hot-tempered, trash-talking style. Increasing numbers of Sarkozy’s LR colleagues are fed up with him (see, e.g., this piece in Mediapart) and his strategy of mimicking the FN. And these fed-up LR tenors now go beyond the usual suspects (Alain Juppé, François Fillon, and their associates). Sarko’s refusal to even consider withdrawing Dominique Reynié’s LR list in LRMP—which finished in third place—to help the PS defeat the FN there, was denounced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Raffarin, who is normally calm and soft-spoken, was practically shouting on France Inter last Monday morning. There are indeed decent, moderate personalities on France’s parliamentary right. Unless LR shocks everyone tomorrow night with a major victory—winning eight regions or more—it will be reglèments de comptes time in that party when its Bureau Politique next meets.
Last Monday I discussed the 1st round result with the students in my three Master’s classes—who lean markedly to the right (mainstream and souverainiste)—at the Catholic University of Paris. One of them, who is highly politicized and works on the presidential primary campaign of one of Sarkozy’s LR rivals, spoke of the deep split in the LR, between the moderates—those who are real republicans (Juppé, Fillon, Bruno Le Maire etc)—and the hard-right/reactionaries led by Sarkozy. She was of the conviction that the two currents would not be able to eternally co-exist in the same party—and in saying this, she was seconded by another student, also an LR activist. If, down the road, the LR does split and there is a major upheaval in the PS, this could signal a wholesale recomposition of the French political field. I’ll come back to this in my post-election post, as well as with other thoughts I have on this subject.
One recurring thought is the striking similarities between what is happening in France with the United States. On this, I recommend Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s NYT, “Empowering the ugliness,” in which he discusses the two countries and gets it exactly, totally right.