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Archive for June, 2021

[update below]

Second rounds of French elections often bring surprises, or results that were not predicted by otherwise alert observers. Such was not the case on Sunday, excepting perhaps the landslide margin of Renaud Muselier’s victory over Thierry Mariani in the PACA. And with the turnout rate increasing by a mere one point, to 34.3%, there was no sursaut of 1st round abstentionists deciding to exercise their civic duty and flock to the polls (as happened, e.g., in 2015). Pundits and politicos have continued to wring their hands over this crisis of democracy and propose various gimmicks to boost turnout—or which they think will achieve this—notably voting by Internet and allowing for absentee ballots, though French election rules and procedures work perfectly well as they are and, apart from simplifying the demarche for proxy voting (vote par procuration) and modifying the deadline for changing one’s registration address, require no changes. Having been an assesseur in a bureau de vote in some 25 election rounds over the past fourteen years, including these last two, I know of what I speak on this.

A good analysis of the mass indifference toward the election was offered by sociologist Albert Ogien in a tribune in yesterday’s Libération, “Régionales: le crépuscule des partis,” in which he underscored the thorough domination of political life in France by an omnipresent and omnipotent head of state—Emmanuel Macron—a state bureaucracy that is incapable of ceding any of its power or decision-making authority, and partisan political apparatuses whose singular obsession is preparing for and waging the campaign for the next presidential election. In such a climate, why, Ogien rhetorically asks, would most voters care a whit about an election to relatively powerless bodies composed of representatives little known to even those who follow politics closely, not to mention the larger public? As mentioned in last week’s post and by Ogien here, regional and departmental councils in France are dwarfs compared to their equivalents in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the UK, among other European countries, in terms of their powers, budgets, and impact their decisions have on the voters they represent. Talking to an educated, professional under-30 member of my family yesterday, she said she had no idea what the Conseil Régional is or does. I am quite sure that it is likewise for the quasi totality of those she knows. And given the decline in partisan political activism—which has never been high in France to begin with; seriously, how people here personally know a card-carrying party militant?—the changing, technology-driven ways in which people inform themselves about public affairs (if/when they do), and the disappearance of electoral posters that used to plaster the walls of French cities and towns (which are now only seen on dedicated signposts in front of polling stations), it is hardly surprising that millions of citizens may only be dimly aware that a low stakes election is even happening.

And then there are the 13 new mega regions created from the previous 22, thanks to François Hollande’s cockamamie 2015 territorial reform, that only a committee of Parisian haut fonctionnaire énarques could concoct. The failings of the mega regions are well-expressed in a tribune (h/t Guillaume Duval) by Fabien Granier, a writer based in deepest rural France, in the online Reporterre: le quotidien de l’écologie, the thrust of which is summed up in the lede: “L’abstention record du premier tour des régionales révèle une catastrophe institutionnelle, selon l’auteur de cette tribune. Pourquoi voter pour des institutions auxquelles les citoyens n’ont plus accès depuis la nouvelle organisation du territoire en pôles régionaux?” Money quote:

Vers 2005, quand je suis arrivé dans le Bocage bourbonnais, au nord-ouest de l’Allier, il y avait une gare à sept minutes de chez moi, des médecins, des écoles… En plus de ses compétences obligatoires, notre département finançait des permis de conduire aux jeunes, soutenait les installations et pouvait se targuer d’une vraie politique culturelle. Notre capitale de Région, c’était Clermont-Ferrand, à une heure de chez nous. On avait un problème du ressort d’une de ces collectivités: on prenait rendez-vous et on y allait. On connaissait nos conseillers, on pouvait même les voir et les contacter. C’était pas dingue, le pays tournait déjà plutôt carré autour de ses archaïsmes jacobins, mais, au moins, on n’était pas abandonnés.

Quinze ans plus tard: plus d’interlocuteurs, plus de médecins, plus de trains, des écoles qui ferment, des mairies et un département à peine en mesure de couvrir leurs frais obligatoires (salaires, frais de gestion courante, etc.). Ajoutez à ça la disparition quasi complète des services anciennement dévolus aux sous-préfectures (cartes grises, associations, etc.), et peut-être alors commencerez-vous à comprendre pourquoi plus personne ne se rend aux urnes. Pourquoi voter pour des institutions auxquelles nous n’avons plus accès?

On Sunday’s results, see the spot-on instant analyses (in English) by John Lichfield in The Local and Arthur Goldhammer in Tocqueville 21. As for my take, here are a few brief comments on the four political blocs, moving from right to left.

Rassemblement National: That Marine Le Pen and the ex-Front National were big losers—winning not a single region and outright losing departmental council seats, netting a mere 28 (of 4,108)—is one of the big stories of the election. The RN’s calamitous scores do indeed cloud the picture for Marine LP next year, though one recalls the FN’s biting the dust in the 1999 European elections, which looked to be the end of the FN as a factor in French politics, only to be followed in the presidential three years later by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s stunning second place finish. And then there was JMLP’s distant fourth place finish in the 2007 presidential, with Nicolas Sarkozy siphoning off a significant number of his voters, and which I thought at the time signaled the end of the road for JMLP and his party. So much for that prediction. And the fact is, a disproportionate number of abstentionists in this present election were MLP/RN voters, most of whom are likely to cast a ballot next April. This said, one wonders how MLP can possibly hope to win a presidential election—in which all of France votes—when her party can not only not win the regional council in the PACA—the part of France where it is the strongest—but gets buried in a landslide to boot. And likewise in the RN’s next strongest region, the Hauts-de-France, where it was crushed by an even bigger landslide. MLP does indeed appear to have hit a glass ceiling, with a sizable number of conservative voters otherwise sympathetic to her message and rhetoric refusing to vote for her or her party (which is the subject of a reportage by Luc Bronner in Le Monde today).

The election also laid bare the limits of MLP’s strategy of poaching high-profile politicians from the parliamentary right to head the RN’s lists, notably Thierry Mariani in the PACA and Sébastien Chenu in the Hauts-de-France. Mariani, who issues from the RPR/UMP/LR’s FN-compatible hard right flank, is a well-known advocate for Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, among other charming leaders of like-minded regimes (he’s also a fan of Narendra Modi, one learns in a lengthy portrait in Le Monde last week of Mariani and his liaisons dangereuses across the globe; among other things, he speaks Russian and has traveled there countless times). As he is a sure-fire pick for the Quai d’Orsay if Marine LP, par malheur, ends up in the Élysée, any setback he suffers is to be welcomed. As for Chenu, formerly of the PR/DL/UMP, qui a mangé à tous les râteliers—among the mainstream things he has done was to serve on Christine Lagarde’s staff when she was Minister of Foreign Trade in the government of Dominique de Villepin—he manifestly did not have the proper populist profile for RN voters in France’s industrial north. Tant mieux.

Les Républicains: They were the big winners, or presented as such, by merely keeping the seven regions they won in 2015 and vanquishing the challenges from the RN—and with the principal interest in this being the brilliant victories of putative presidential candidates Xavier Bertrand of the Hauts-de-France, Valérie Pécresse of the Île-de-France, and Laurent Wauquiez of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, the first two having formally quit LR, in which they were longtime pillars, over the past four years. On the presidential ambition front, one may safely dismiss that of Wauquiez, who is too right-wing (and too nasty of an SOB to boot). If there are any significant policy differences between him and Marine Le Pen, I have not perceived them. I simply cannot imagine a scenario in which he emerges as the non-RN right’s standard-bearer.

Bertrand is manifestly the favorite, as not only do the polls have him as the best placed to break the Macron-Le Pen duopoly but he is also the right-wing candidate who is the most acceptable to centrist voters and least unacceptable to the left, while—for the moment at least—maintaining his credibility with the LR base. Bertrand has cultivated his moderate image as president of the Hauts-de-France regional council over the past six years, even flattering lefty sensibilities in certain domains, notably cultural policy. Inevitably though, he has engaged in the usual right-wing demagoguery on law-and-order issues and immigration, e.g. calling for minimum mandatory sentencing, minimum 50-year sentences for persons convicted of terrorism, lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 15, expelling undocumented foreigners manu militari, and the like—and knowing full well that some of what he proposes is unconstitutional or violates the European Charter on Human Rights. Such is the French right.

À propos, one notes that Bertrand and other LR personalities, such as Christian Jacob, continue to refer to Marine Le Pen’s party as the “Front National,” as if to make clear that they do not believe it has changed in any way, that they still consider it beyond the pale and will not deal with it. Except that on immigration, national identity, insécurité, and other such hot button issues, there is no longer any appreciable difference between LR and the FN/RN—Exhibit A being the tract below by the first-tier LR deputy from Nice, Éric Ciotti.

Whatever procedure LR ultimately adopts for selecting its candidate, Bertrand has made it clear that he won’t be bound by it, that his candidacy is all but definitive. Unless he somehow plunges in the polls, it is hard to see how LR can not se rendre à l’évidence and rally behind him, particularly if he continues to have the best chance of making it to the 2nd round. But if he somehow does plunge, Pécresse would be LR’s best alternative IMHO, as she’s conservative but not hard right (I had not bad things to say about her in an early AWAV post ten years ago). As for other LR presidential possibilities—e.g. Bruno Retailleau, Michel Barnier—I doubt it.

La République en Marche: What else to say about Emmanuel Macron’s party—the other big loser on Sunday—except to repeat myself and what everyone knows, which is that it is all but non-existent. President Macron, in effect, does not have a political party worthy of the name, which, after four years in office, is a complicated situation for an incumbent president to find himself in as he contemplates his reelection campaign. Macron’s poll numbers are acceptable for the moment (+40/-57 in the last IPSOS baromètre) but he still has to come up with a positive argument for his reelection, which is not readily apparent. And he has to initiate some kind of legislative action this fall and that will not cause his fragile approval rating to plummet. But even if he can pull that off, if the inevitable 4th wave of the coronavirus leads to yet another confinement or other sanitary restrictions, all bets will be off regarding Monsieur Macron. In short, it is not a totally sure thing that he will make it to next April.

If it looks like Macron may throw in the towel on running for reelection, we’re sure to start hearing a lot about Édouard Philippe.

La Gauche: Not a party but, for this election, we can consider the Parti Socialiste, Europe Écologie-Les Verts, La France Insoumise, and Parti Communiste as a bloc. The PS is satisfied with its showing, as it maintained its control of the five regions won in 2015 and held its own in the departmental councils, notably in the southwest. But one should not be deceived, as the overall performance of the left was rather less-than-impressive. E.g. in the Île-de-France, which the PS ran from 1999 to 2015, the united left list for the 2nd round—led by well-known personalities (Julien Bayou, Audrey Pulvar, Clémentine Autain)—managed to obtain only 33.7% of the vote. And in the Hauts-de-France, another erstwhile PS/PCF stronghold, the united left list, led by the écolo Karima Delli, netted a mere 22%. Pas fameux.

As for the presidential race, the election clarified nothing, and with the PS and EELV having yet to figure out how (or even if) they’re going to select a single candidate—not that anyone they could possibly propose to the French electorate has any credibility as Président de la République. Seriously, can one imagine Anne Hidalgo, Arnaud Montebourg, Yannick Jadot, or Éric Piolle in the Élysée palace? As for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he will be lucky to even reach the double digits.

More on the crisis of the left another time.

UPDATE: See the analysis in Le Monde (July 2nd) by Florent Gougou of Sciences Po Grenoble, “‘La percée historique du RN en 2015 a été en partie effacée aux régionales et départementales 2021, mais seulement en partie’.” The lede: “Si la dynamique de recul est la plus forte de l’histoire du parti d’extrême droite entre deux scrutins de même type, elle mérite d’être nuancée, estime le chercheur en science politique, qui constate une ‘disparition de la surmobilisation’.” Noting that a fine-grained analysis of the vote at the cantonal level does not support the hypothesis that the high abstention rate was disproportionately prejudicial to the RN, Gougou concludes:

Finalement, le bilan de ces élections régionales et départementales est très mauvais pour le RN. Son réseau d’élus locaux a été fortement affaibli, avec une centaine de conseillers régionaux en moins (252 contre 356 en 2015). Mais surtout, il a perdu plus de la moitié de ses conseillers départementaux (26 contre 62 en 2015) dans un scrutin qui a très fortement favorisé les sortants. C’est un coup d’arrêt dans la dynamique d’implantation locale de la droite radicale en France.

The same issue of Le Monde has a lengthy enquête by Franck Johannès on the RN’s chaotic campaign in the Hauts-de-France, which laid bare a number of problems of the party at the national level: “Amateurisme et ombres identitaires, la drôle de campagne de Sébastien Chenu.”

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[update below]

A couple of comments on yesterday’s vote for the regional and departmental councils, about which I will have more to say after next Sunday’s 2nd round. First, the historically high abstention rate for a nationwide election—topped only by that of the 2000 constitutional referendum—which is leading all commentaries and analyses. Polls and analysts were predicting this but none had it as high as two-thirds of the electorate. By way of contrast, the participation rate for the previous elections to these two bodies—in March and December 2015—was 50%, seen then as disappointing.

The endless pandemic and long second confinement—which we’re thankfully coming out of—certainly had some effect, as partisan politics are not on everyone’s mind these days, and particularly younger voters—the abstention rate for the 18-24 cohort reaching 87%, according to one poll—and those from the couches populaires. I can personally affirm, via private conversations, that more than a few under-30 voters were barely aware that the elections—originally scheduled for March but postponed due to the pandemic and confinement—were even happening. The limited responsibilities and prerogatives of the regional and departmental councils—to which the great majority of voters pay little attention—also contributed to the relative disinterest. French administrative regions are not akin to Germany’s Länder, Italy’s provinces, or Spain’s autonomous communities in their powers, size of budgets, or as the wellspring of identity for their denizens—and the latter all the less so since President Hollande’s half-baked law that created 13 mega regions of the previous 22—which, six years after the fact, hasn’t worked out extremely well.

But the overriding factor explaining the unprecedented abstention rate is, as friend Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Économiques put it in an instant analysis on Facebook, the magnitude and severity of the crisis afflicting French democracy. The political climate in France, to put it tersely, has become insufferable, with a hysterization of political debate—if one can call the demagoguery, invective, and trolling one gets on the all-“news” stations and social media a debate—that is as bad as anything I’ve witnessed in three decades of living in this country—and which is being driven by the extreme right, with the heretofore mainstream right—followed by Emmanuel Macron and his allies—jumping on the bandwagon. A rematch between a right-lurching Macron and Marine Le Pen, which hardly anyone wishes for, has been presented as an inevitability by pundits and politicos alike. As Le Monde editorialized earlier this month, “un vent mauvais souffle sur la démocratie [française].”

This aspect of France’s current political state merits a lengthier treatment than I can give it right now—but which I will come back to—so in the meantime let me recommend three first-rate commentaries that have appeared in English over the past month, by the excellent Rokhaya Diallo in The Washington Post, “How France’s far right is now dictating the terms of public debate;” Cole Stangler in The New York Times, “France is becoming more like America: It’s terrible;” and Harrison Stetler in The New Republic, “The year that broke Emmanuel Macron’s republican front: The French president is facing a far right that has gained the upper hand in the country’s insidious culture wars. And he has only himself to blame.”

The second comment on yesterday’s vote is on the counter-performance of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), the debacle of Macron’s La République en Marche (REM), the good showing of the Republicans (LR), and the relatively not too bad one of the Socialists. It was taken almost for granted that the RN would finish in first place in five or six of the regions, and with the prospect of winning at least three in the 2nd round, if not more. But with the RN plunging almost 9 points compared to the FN’s 2015 result (from 28% to 19% nationally), which was a genuine surprise, it now only has a chance to win one region, the PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur)—where the 2nd round square-off with LR will be hard-fought now that the list of the left has thrown in the towel (regrettably IMO). As three-quarters of Marine LP’s 2017 voters abstained yesterday, we’ll see if the RN benefits from the kind of 2nd round sursaut as did the non-FN parties in 2015. But whatever happens to the RN next Sunday, it will likely not alter the dynamics for 2022 in regard to MLP and her prospects of making it to the 2nd round in that one.

As for Macron’s REM, the abject failure of its lists across the board confirmed what was revealed in last year’s municipal elections, which is that the REM is, as I wrote then, an empty vessel of political non-entities, existing solely to anchor Macron’s personal ambitions (now his reelection in 2022) and with the Great Helmsman making the REM’s every last decision. If Macron should win reelection next May—which, if his opponent is MLP, we will ardently hope he does—it is highly possible that he will not win a majority in the legislative elections that follow in June.

On Macron’s reelection prospects, these could be complicated by the strong performance of Xavier Bertrand in the Hauts-de-France, which all but guarantees him victory next Sunday—and with that, the formal launching of his presidential campaign. Whatever the scores of Laurent Wauquiez or Valérie Pécresse, it is hard to see how LR can seriously come up with a candidate of its own in the face of Bertrand’s fait accompli—unless they want to see a Macron-Le Pen rematch. And particularly if polls show Bertrand within striking distance of those two.

The left: regardless of how the PS and écolos do on Sunday, the left is out of the national picture for the foreseeable future. Sad but true.

À suivre la semaine prochaine.

UPDATE: Le Monde editorialist Françoise Fressoz has a noteworthy analysis, in the June 23rd issue, of the high abstention, “Quand la politique tourne à vide.”

Arun at polling station 38

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