[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
It’s been a week since the 2nd round of the regional elections, the results of which are known to all with a passing interest in French politics: the alliance of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party and UDI/MoDem centrists won seven of the thirteen regions, François Hollande’s Socialists—allied with or supported by the rest of the left—took five, Corsican nationalists scored an upset in one—Corsica obviously—and Marine Le Pen’s Front National was shut out. The FN won nothing, due in part to the 8.5% spike in the participation rate: from 49.9% of registered voters in the 1st round to 58.4% in the 2nd. The increased participation was, personally speaking, readily apparent in my polling station, where I was an assesseur titulaire, with almost a hundred more voters (of 940 registered) showing up for the 2nd round, including an unusually high number—for this kind of election—in their 20s and even late teens (and in view of the result, they didn’t come to vote FN). There have been a few good analyses in English of last Sunday’s outcome, e.g. Pierre Briançon in Politico.eu, Arthur Goldhammer in The American Prospect and the Boston Review, and Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad in The American Interest. So as not to repeat what these august commentators have to say—or my own analysis of the political field after last March’s departmental elections—I will make just a few points about France’s three political poles coming out of Sunday’s vote (in their order of finish).
“Les Républicains“: This was not a victory for the ex-UMP, loin s’en faut, despite its victory in seven of the new regions—corresponding to 12 of the 22 old ones, compared to a single one in the 2010 elections and a mere two in 2004—as Sarkozy and his acolytes had visions of winning 10 or 11 until the final phase of the campaign. The weekly L’Express—whose editorial line does not lean left—indeed called Sarkozy “the real loser” in its cover story on the election, as LR, entre autres, failed to break 50% in any triangulaire and with its most decisive victories being in the three regions—NPDCP, PACA, and the Grand Est—where the Socialists withdrew or disowned their lists after the 1st round—and thus sacrificing any representation in the regional councils there for the next six years—in the higher interests of the “front républicain“—a stance expressly rejected by Sarkozy for his own party—to bar the route of the FN. It was striking to see Sarkozy’s droitisation strategy—of mimicking the Front National on the immigration and national identity issues to lure back defecting right-wing voters—and rejection of an anti-FN front républicain with the PS openly disparaged in his own party in the aftermath of the vote, and not only by the usual suspects—e.g. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Pierre Raffarin—but also the hard right-wing sarkozyste historique Christian Estrosi in PACA and the conservative ex-villepiniste Hervé Mariton. Estrosi’s public critique of his now erstwhile mentor’s neo-frontiste rhetoric—the principal consequence of which has been to inflate the FN’s ranks and votes—was quite something.
Of equal note was Xavier Bertrand’s address in Lille on Sunday night, in which he explicitly thanked voters of the left—and with manifest sincere humility—for his victory over Marine LP in the NPDCP region. I will bet a small sum of money that Bertrand’s poll numbers will spike sharply in the next IPSOS baromètre with those on the left, who greatly appreciated his generous words. Estrosi did not initially go as far as Bertrand but has made it clear since that he will not forget about the left voters who enabled his victory over Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Had the PS not committed hara-kiri in those two regions, Marine and Marion would likely be presiding the regional councils in Lille and Marseille, point barre. In view of the FN’s large anchor in these regions, Bertrand and Estrosi will be beholden to left voters indefinitely, future elections included. And then there was Sarko’s unceremonious eviction of NKM from the nº2 post in LR’s leadership at Monday’s political bureau meeting—which Alain Juppé and Bruno Le Maire didn’t even bother showing up for—a move criticized by Juppé, Raffarin, and other Sarko detractors in the party.
Sarkozy is not at all convinced, however, that the election result was in any way a repudiation of his hard-right strategy. Au contraire, he sees it as confirmation of this, particularly in view of LR’s victories in France’s two largest and richest regions, the Île-de-France (Paris and its banlieues) and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (capital: Lyon). Valérie Pécresse, who headed the LR-UDI-MoDem list in the ÎDF, did not win by a large margin but her victory was nonetheless sans appel. And it was a particularly gratifying one for her, as Claude Bartolone’s 2nd round Socialist-led list represented the broadest-possible left and ecologist coalition—there were no less than 15 party logos on its campaign flyers—and with the outcome uncertain to the very end. The PS knew the race would be close but was confident it would win it. Pécresse—whom I’ve written about positively in the past, BTW— is moderately conservative and very much her own person—she is not a Sarkozy sycophant—but tacked right in the campaign, emphasizing the insécurité issue (fear of crime and terrorism), excoriating “communautarisme” (a code word for public displays of Muslim identity), and embracing personalities from the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) that swept the conservative, practicing Catholic portion of French society in 2013 (and included religious Muslims and Jews), taking by surprise all the parties of the right, including the FN, none of which supported it. And then there was her campaign spokesman—and now chief-of-staff at the Conseil Régional—Geoffroy Didier, co-founder of the ex-UMP’s fanatically sarkozyste, Patrick Buisson-inspired La Droite Forte caucus and who is as far right as one can get in that party without becoming an outright frontiste. So it is entirely normal that Sarkozy would take particular comfort in Pécresse’s victory, as with that of Laurent Wauquiez in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. This one was decisive and somewhat unexpectedly so, as the PS, whose list was led by the incumbent Jean-Jacques Queyranne—a longtime politician in the greater Lyon area—had reason to hope it could win the region via an addition of left voters. Wauquiez is an unabashed hard rightist, whose rhetoric accents economic libéralisme—which plays well with right-wing voters in the southeast (Wauquiez’s base is the Haute-Loire)—denunciation of “l’assistanat“—read: welfare cases and other slackers who would rather receive taxpayer-funded free stuff from government than get a job—and defense of farmers and small-town folk, who provided his margin of victory on Sunday. Sarkozy’s replacement of NKM with Wauquiez as party nº2 was the logical thing to do from his standpoint.
Further reinforcing Sarkozy’s attitude was the poor performance of Virginie Calmels, the LR-UDI-MoDem’s list leader in the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, a member of no party until this year who not only lost the region by 12 points to the PS’s Alain Rousset but was bested in Bordeaux itself, where she is a vice-mayor and protégé of Juppé, who’s been the mayor of that city for two decades now. Sarkozyistes exulted over Juppé’s embarrassment (which one could observe on Twitter after the result was announced on Sunday night). And then there was the defeat in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val-de-Loire, and the narrowest of victories in Normandy, the lists in all three regions headed by UDI centrists (specifically from Le Nouveau Centre, one of the UDI’s principal constituents; for the record, the NC is, despite its centrist label, moderately to the right). For LR’s right-wing, this was proof that, electorally speaking, the centrists bring little to the table—and may even be a liability—and that tilting in a centrist direction is not the way to go for LR. Sarkozy defended the alliance with the UDI and MoDem and his offering the centrists the head-of-list slots in the three aforementioned regions, but could only be comforted in his droitisation strategy by the UDI’s counter-performance.
So there is not a chance that Sarkozy will modify his neo-frontiste discourse between now and LR’s primary next November—or after, in the appalling eventuality that he should win it. In this, he will be ardently supported by LR’s hardcore base and the online réacosphère of websites, blogs, and social media, and which has become ever more influential on the right. The incarnation of this is Valeurs Actuelles—US equivalents: National Review, Human Events—which was long a low circulation weekly magazine read by bourgeois reactionaries and ignored by everyone else but whose website is now the most high-profile in that segment of the political spectrum. If one wants to know what French hard-rightists are reading and thinking, that’s where to look.
The bottom line: the cleavage in LR is deep—which I discussed in my pre-2nd round post a week ago—and can only deepen further as the primary campaign dominates the life of the party in the coming year—and during which LR will be transformed into the sole instrument of Sarko and his clan, and all but abandoned by Juppé and the other candidates for the presidential nomination. It’s hard to see how the party can possibly unite around the candidate who wins the primary. In the horrific event that it’s Sarkozy, a centrist or center-right candidacy is certain—most certainly François Bayrou—and who will siphon many moderate LR voters. And if it’s Juppé—or even Le Maire or François Fillon—the LR’s Tea Party base will defect in sizable numbers to the best hard-right candidate on offer, e.g. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or even Marine LP.
The nominee will, however, not be Sarkozy, as I’ve been insisting for over a year now. His political comeback has been a flop, too many people in his own party can’t stand him, and his poll numbers are execrable. Now he did rise seven points in the last IPSOS baromètre—to 38% positive/57% negative—but this was taken in the week following the November 13th terrorist attacks and with almost every politician’s numbers improving; it was as if, in the post-attack national trauma, people felt the need to believe in their elected representatives. But Sarko’s positive rating is destined to tumble back to where it’s been since his return to the partisan arena—20s/low 30s—while Juppé will remain in the 50s, thereby maintaining his status as the most popular political personality in France. And there is no reason why this should change in the coming year barring an unforeseen affaire, as Juppé does not hold national office and therefore has no active bilan over which opinions of him can evolve. He incarnates a center-right sensibility conforming to that of the French median voter and with a steely but calm, steady temperament that reassures rather than disquiets. On this level, the contrast between Juppé and Sarkozy—with his feverish, frenetic, trash-talking persona, constantly blowing his stack in front of his associates (which has been reported countless times over the past decade)—could not be starker.
À propos of all this, France Inter’s political editorialist Thomas Legrand—who is the sharpest, most incisive analyst of French politics in the media—asserted on Friday—correctly, in my view—that France’s next president will be on the center-right. He did not specify who that man or woman would be, though did advance a few names, including Sarkozy and Hollande (most unlikely, IMO). Juppé pretty clearly fits the bill. As for the relative strengths of these three men in the general election, an IFOP/Atlantico poll released December 18th has some interesting numbers: if LR’s candidate is Sarkozy and with Bayrou running, Hollande will overtake Sarko to face off against the first place finisher Marine LP in the 2nd round (it’s likewise if Fillon wins the primary). But if LR’s candidate is Juppé—and with or without Bayrou in the race—he finishes in first place and well ahead of Marine (and whom he will annihilate in the 2nd round). If these IFOP numbers remain steady over the coming year, Sarkozy is toast. Point barre. 100% cooked. There is no chance whatever that right and center primary voters will give the majority to a candidate who looks even iffy for the 2nd round.
The Socialists: The PS is satisfied with last Sunday’s outcome, which is hardly surprising in view of its debacles in the 2014 municipal and European elections and last March’s departmental. But it should not be, as its victories in two of the five regions it won—BFC and CVDL—were narrow and due only to the high scores of the FN. And its loss in the ÎDF was a real setback, as the PS and its allies have governed this region since 1998 and with the city of Paris now safely voting left. And adding to these is the left’s disappearance altogether from the councils in NPDCP—a historic PS/left stronghold—and PACA.
Back to the ÎDF, the loss here laid bare much of what is wrong with the Socialists these days and the precarious situation they find themselves in. First, with Claude Bartolone heading the list. The manner in which he had Jean-Paul Huchon ejected—with the manifest assent of François Hollande, even though Huchon had loyally, if uncharismatically, presided the ÎDF Conseil Regional for the previous 17+ years—was unseemly. Moreover, it’s not as if Bartolone, who happens to be President of the National Assembly—the fourth ranking post in the French state—was seeking a mandate commensurate with his political stature—unless, of course, he was looking to assure his own political future, knowing that his party will be wiped out in the legislative elections in 18 months time. Now “Barto,” as he is known, is said to be greatly appreciated by PS deputies but for those outside the party he is the epitome of a Rue de Solférino apparatchik. There is, objectively speaking, nothing compelling about him as a politician. And then there was his demagoguery in the 2nd round campaign, calling Valérie Pécresse the defender of “Versailles [i.e. reactionaries], Neuilly [i.e. filthy rich people], and the white race…” Personally speaking, I considered voting blanc on account of this low road attack, though finally cast my ballot for Barto, solely to (unsuccessfully) deprive Sarkozy the satisfaction of winning the region.
Secondly in regard to the ÎDF was the PS’s failure to win the region despite the broad left coalition it put together in the 2nd round. As mentioned above, absolutely every constituent on the left save neo-Trotskyist groupuscules (NPA, LO etc) supported the PS-led list. These even included Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche, Mélenchon normally loathing the PS with a passion. Now most of these formations are admittedly not too significant—when not entirely unknown to the general public—but the symbolism was important nonetheless. The fact that a broad left coalition could still not win the ÎDF—and despite LR’s rightist campaign rhetoric and the FN not being a factor—will have implications for the PS’s future calculations—and to which may be added the PS’s victory in Brittany—the list led by Jean-Yves Le Drian breaking 50%—without any support from the rest of the left (Le Drian, finding the écolos’ 2nd round demands for slots on the list to be unreasonable, told them to go f— off). In view of the poor 1st round performance of the Europe Écologie-Les Verts and the Front de Gauche, and the total stock of left votes barely reaching 36%, it is now clearer than ever that the gauche de la gauche is all but useless to the PS in winning elections, at least when it comes to formal accords between partisan formations.
This is not to say that the overall identification with the left is on the decline or that the French left is finished (even though I’ve said as much myself in moments of despair or disgust). The French left is certainly in crisis—unsure of what it believes or wants, and insofar as it knows this, with no idea how to get there—and with its partisan structures in various stages of deliquescence or discredit, but the left identity remains strong. An IFOP poll for L’Humanité back in September revealed some interesting figures on this—and which seem right to me—with 53% of the sample situating itself on the right and 47% on the left (self-identified centrists were likely asked to tilt in one direction or another or with such being determined in follow-up questions). Breaking these down, 28% identified as left, 15% center-left, and 4% extreme-left. On the other side, 25% identified as right, 17% center-right, and 11% extreme-right. These numbers show at least four things. First, they confirm what has been known for most of the past century—and particularly during the Fifth Republic—which is that France leans to the right. There been have moments when the left surged ahead—1936, 1945-46, 1981—but these have been exceptional and short-lived. Second, there has not been a droitisation of French society, whatever Nicolas Sarkozy and other rightists may think: it’s the right that has lurched right—to the hard and extreme—not French voters as a whole. Third, the relatively low stock of left votes in current elections is not due to the defection of left voters to the right but rather their retreat into abstention (and disappointed but politically engaged voters who stop going to the polls can be lured back). Fourth, if one considers the new reality of French politics to be tripartite—PS, LR, FN—one can order the IFOP numbers to reflect three political poles of almost equal voter strength: left/extreme-left, center-left/center-right, and right/extreme-right.
François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and other social-liberals in the PS look to have drawn the inevitable conclusion from both the 2nd round results—in regard to the écolos and rest of the left—and the IFOP numbers, which is that there is no electoral salvation for the PS exclusively on the left. The cleavage within the party—between the social-liberals and those who are not this, who do not, e.g., appreciate Emmanuel Macron—is widening, and that with the FdG being an unbridgeable chasm. If the PS is ever to win another election, it has no choice but to look right for coalition partners with whom it can govern: UDI/MoDem and the center-right formation that issues from the eventual breakup of LR. Valls and others in his corner have been talking since last Sunday about a major “recomposition,” indeed upheaval, in the French political field and this is what they have in mind—and their thoughts have been echoed by moderate LR politicos, notably Raffarin and Bertrand.
Such a recomposition will necessitate the PS changing its name—i.e. shedding the “socialist” label—which Valls and Julien Dray mentioned during the week. The PS’s hack First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis tried to quash the idea and others called it irrelevant but the party will need to do this, as “socialism” simply doesn’t mean anything anymore; or, rather, it refers to a doctrine from another era that no one in the PS—or even PCF—advocates or believes is possible. People are not completely disconnected from reality. Moreover, it was precisely when socialism became the dominant creed on the French left that the latter ceased to cover over half the political spectrum—which it had in the early decades of the Third Republic—through the First World War—when adherence to republicanism and laïcité was what situated one on the left. Rid of the “socialist” label—to which older PS members and left voters are viscerally attached but means nothing to the younger generation—a reconstituted social-liberal party—likely including the PRG and non-EELV écolo groups—would have a wide boulevard to constitute coalitions with the center and a new center-right formation, based on republicanism and economic policies such as those associated with Macron. The consequence of this will no doubt be a split in the PS, with its frondeurs and other gauchistes (Benoît Hamon et al) forming a new party that will ally with a post-Mélenchon FdG, forming the left pole of French politics (and which still represents many people).
This is all post-2017, though—a project for the future—after the PS has been relegated to the opposition and Hollande sent into retirement. And it will necessitate a change in the electoral system, of a dose of proportional representation in legislative elections—of up to half the deputies in the National Assembly being elected on national PR lists—as three poles with roughly equal electorates and coalitions of several small parties cannot happen with the current mode de scrutin. But there is no chance whatever that a post-2017 government of the right will introduce even a modest dose of PR. And though this was one of Hollande’s 2012 campaign pledges, he has now abandoned it.
Yet one more Hollande disappointment… Despite his post-November 13th leap in the polls—which, like that in January, will not last—Hollande has disappointed just about everyone. His presidency has been that: one huge disappointment. If he had pushed through just one big reform and that everyone could feel—and most in an immediately positive way—e.g. reforming France’s impossibly complex, incomprehensible, and unfair tax code—making it less complex, more comprehensible, and fair, such as proposed, e.g., by Thomas Piketty et al—he could have secured his presidency and legacy. As an énarque surrounded by énarques, he understands this dossier and could have taken it on. But his cautious, splitting-the-difference political style would not allow for such audacious action and that risked upsetting various constituencies and interest groups. And then there is his and the Valls government’s wild overreaction to November 13th, with the état d’urgence and talk of amending the constitution on this, so as to allow for, entre autres, the stripping of French nationality of native-born citizens. This latter bit—which is outrageous and unacceptable, not to mention shocking coming from a PS government—will, in view of the outcry on the left, no doubt be dropped but if it’s not, Hollande will definitely not make it to the 2nd round should he be a candidate. Large numbers of left voters will defect to another candidate or abstain. Like Sarkozy, he’ll be toast in ’17.
Front National: I have less to say about the FN than the above-mentioned political poles, as it is, objectively speaking, by far the least important. The FN is a party that has never governed any Frenchman or woman—apart from those in a tiny handful of unfortunate communes that the great majority of French citizens have never set foot in—and which is not about to change. The FN is not a party of alternance and, in its present form, will never be.
A few brief points about this objectively minor political party. First, all the post-1st round talk about the FN being le premier parti de France was, pardon my French, a load of bullshit. A political party that has existed for over forty years but sent a total a five deputies elected in single-member constituencies to the National Assembly, two senators to the Luxembourg palace, elected fewer than twenty mayors of communes of over 3,500 inhabitants in its history, has never controlled a single regional or departmental council, and is influential in not a single civil society association or organization of any significance cannot be considered important. Point barre. For those who differ with me on this—who do think the FN is a consequential party—here’s a question: have you ever been to a major FN event, e.g. a Jean-Marie or Marine Le Pen rally, May 1st Jeanne d’Arc march in Paris, Fête BBR before it was discontinued in 2007? Anyone who has—and I have at least a half-dozen times—will have observed that the FN is a relatively small party, whose hard-core base doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Cf. the PCF, whose national vote is now in the low-mid single digits but which can attract a hundred times more people to its events than the FN can to its.
Second, the FN, as a festering boil on the French body politic, does merit close attention, study, and analysis but, as happens with boils, it was lanced in last Sunday’s 2nd round. The result was proof for the umpteenth time that breaking 50% of the vote in any given constituency is something the FN cannot do. This was the case 20-30 years ago and remains so today. That the FN can’t even come close to winning the PACA region—the most right-wing in the country and where it is solidly implanted—makes the mere notion that it could win a presidential election—in 2017, 2022, or anytime in the foreseeable future—absurd and laughable. The FN won 6.8 million votes last Sunday, which was a historic achievement and nothing to sneeze at. But the sky is not the limit for Marine LP and her party is not likely to go much higher, particularly in high participation contests such as legislative and, above all, presidential elections. E.g. the average of the participation rates in the 2nd round in all the presidential elections since 1965—with the exception of 1969, which was an anomaly (as one of the major parties instructed its millions of faithful voters to stay home)—is 83%. If Marine LP makes it to the 2nd round in 2017, which looks likely, one may bet that the participation rate will reach, maybe even exceed, 85%, i.e. that over 40 million voters will go to the polls on that day. I’m sorry but there is no way—not a snowball’s chance in hell—that 20 million French citizens will vote to send Marine Le Pen to the Élysée palace. Jamais de la vie. Not in 2017, or 2027, or ever.
Third, the reason why the FN cannot break 50% is because it has not changed. Apart from Marine Le Pen striving the rid the party of her father’s hang up about Jews, it’s still the same FN. In this respect, all the talk about the FN having transformed itself from a parti de protestation to a parti d’adhésion is nonsense and rubbish. The FN remains a protest party for which populism is its DNA. And at the core of populism is an across-the-board denunciation of “the establishment”—of the governing elites, mainstream political parties, the media, intelligentsia, educational institutions, etc, etc—which is seen as the enemy and with which compromises are not to be made. Marine LP is said to want to be President of the Republic, that this is her ambition and her goal. It may well be. But she has not elaborated a credible strategy to get there, a centerpiece of which would be to cultivate at least part of “the establishment” and seek out allies within it. Unless she’s a megalomaniacal narcissist, which is possible, one may hypothesize that she doesn’t really want state power after all—as her father never did—as if she were to obtain it, this would immediately make her part of the establishment and impose all sorts of compromises that she would have no idea how to make. And the FN, as the party of the new establishment, would lose its raison d’être, as all populist parties do when they wield executive power.
Fourth, on the question of allies: Florian Philippot spoke between the two rounds of allying with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, that this is something that the FN should maybe try to do. There seemed to be no takers in the FN leadership for this, even though Dupont-Aignan’s position on Europe is closer to the FN’s than anyone else’s outside the party. But while Dupont-Aignan may be a Europhobe he’s not a facho and would never ally with the frontistes, as he would gain nothing from it but would lose a lot, namely his credibility in “the establishment” (which he does have). Likewise with Philippe de Villiers—now retired from electoral politics—who is way out on the right—more so than Dupont-Aignan—but never showed the slightest interest in allying with the FN and despite movement of cadres between the latter and de Villiers’s now moribund Mouvement pour la France. So the FN’s absence of allies—which it manifestly does not want and that no one wants with it—will continue indefinitely. And without allies or some kind of entrée into “the establishment,” the doors to power will be forever closed to the Le Pens.
One other point about the FN and why it cannot be placed in the same league with LR, the PS, UDI, MoDem, the FdG or any of the other “establishment” parties or blocs. The FN is the private preserve of the Le Pen family. It is a Le Pen family enterprise. Without a Le Pen at the head of the FN, the FN does not exist. If Marine and Marion were to suddenly leave this earth—as Jean-Marie certainly will sooner rather than later—there would be no one to take their place. The FN would fragment into several pieces. The French extreme right would cease to speak with a single, dominant voice. And it would thereby disappear as a significant electoral force.
UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, Sarah Palin had a column in Breitbart.com, dated December 13th, praising Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and her aunt Marine. The Wassila Wacko thus begins: “I have a political crush, but one I couldn’t vote for today – because she ran for office in France.” The “she” is Marion M-LP. Read it and behold. As I’ve tirelessly insisted for years, the conservative wing of the GOP = Front National.
2nd UPDATE: A faithful reader—my mother—emailed me the following comment about the above: “I did…read the article supposedly authored by Sarah Palin. I use that qualifying phrase because I believe someone wrote it for her. It is too literate and well-written to be hers, and she has allies out there to support her as a public personality.” My mother is no doubt correct. I was struck that Palin—whom I rather doubt reads French—would know enough about Marion M-LP & Co. to write about them, let alone be interested in doing so.
3rd UPDATE: Two post-election polls are out, by ELABE and Odoxa, that show a reinforcement of Alain Juppé position and a collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s. The gap between the two men is wider than ever. As for François Hollande, he’s headed south.