THE FRENCH RIGHT SCORES A HISTORIC VICTORY, New Yorker, March 31, 2014
Sunday’s municipal elections in France offer at least three historical firsts: a historically poor result for the socialist party of President François Hollande; the best-ever results for the right-wing National Front party of Marine Le Pen; and a national record for low voter turnout. The left lost mainly because its own electorate—discouraged by the disappointing performance of the Hollande government and a lacklustre campaign—decided to stay home.
“It’s a defeat for the government and the majority,” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said. “The message is clear, it should be understood fully…. There is a serious disaffection among those who voted for us in 2012.” Indeed, Ayrault is among those likely to pay a price for the defeat. President Hollande is expected to replace Ayrault, in a cabinet shuffle meant to show that he has heard the electorate and gets the message. François Kalfon, a Socialist mayor who was defeated on Sunday, put it even more bluntly in an interview on France 3 (one of the national networks), saying that the results showed that the government “doesn’t seem to live on the same planet as the people who voted for it.”
One of the main beneficiaries of the left’s debacle is the National Front, which, under Marine Le Pen, has tried hard to appear more moderate—to shake off the labels “far fight” and “racist,” which were commonly attached to it during the years it was led by her father, the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. If early returns hold up, the National Front appears likely to have carried eleven new cities and elected a record number of city-council members—its best result ever. “The National Front, in 2008, gained only sixty city councilors,” Marine Le Pen said on Sunday night. “This evening, we should have between twelve hundred and thirteen hundred city councilors elected.”
The moderate tone, or perhaps façade, that the younger Le Pen has adopted in recent years appears to have been effective. For the first time, the main center-right party, the Union pour un Movement Populaire, which emerged as the largest single party in the country last night, refused to treat the National Front as untouchables. Traditionally, the U.M.P., the Gaullist party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has stuck to the so-called Front Républicain, in which Socialists and Gaullists agreed to help each other to keep the far right out of power. There are two rounds of elections in France, and in cases in which either a Socialist or Gaullist candidate would be facing a right-wing candidate, the other two parties would join forces and avoid dividing the vote. But this time the U.M.P. more or less cast aside the Republican Front idea. It was far less damaged by the National Front’s success than the left was: the U.M.P. appears to have taken some hundred cities from the left and regained its status as France’s largest party.
The percentage of voters who decided not to vote at all hit a record high, which helped to account for the success of the National Front in many towns. According to an Ipsos/Steria poll that was published on the Web site of Le Monde, only 61.5 per cent of eligible voters showed up at the polls. While this would be a record high for midterm elections in the United States—where generally about forty per cent of people vote in non-Presidential elections—it was a low mark in France. Here, voter turnout was more than eighty per cent until the nineteen-eighties, and has only gone down slowly since then.
The reasons for voter dissatisfaction with the Hollande government are not hard to find. They appear to have nothing to do with the troubles in his personal life. (Earlier this year, he was caught conducting a secret romance with an actress while living with another woman at the Presidential palace.) When he came into office, in May of 2012, he listed unemployment, economic stagnation, and declining economic competitiveness as his highest priorities. France’s economy actually shrunk slightly in both 2012 and 2013, still mired in the recession from which most other industrialized nations have begun to emerge. France’s unemployment rate is now at about eleven per cent, even higher than the approximately 9.5 per cent rate when Hollande came into office. Hollande seems to have tinkered around the edges—fulfilling some of his campaign promises, such as hiring more teachers and increasing scholarships and jobs programs for younger people—but he has lost sight of the bigger picture. He ended up taxing far more than the richest strata of French society to pay for policies that failed to deliver significant results. Hollande seems incapable of articulating a vision of what he wants for France and how he intends to achieve it.
On a deeper level, the French Socialist Party has yet to really undertake a serious internal debate about what it means to be a socialist in the twenty-first century. Germany and the Scandinavian countries have gone much further in enacting structural economic reforms—loosening up labor markets without doing away with most social protections. And they have achieved higher levels of growth and managed lower unemployment rates. Will there be a debate in France as to whether some of the left’s cherished policies—such as the thirty-five-hour work week, a retirement age of sixty or sixty-two, and comparatively rigid labor laws—have contributed to France’s economic malaise? Hollande won in 2012 not because of the force of his party’s ideas or his own appeal but because of public dissatisfaction with Sarkozy. The Socialists, despite being out of power since 1995, had not subjected themselves to the reëxamination of their own positions that center-left parties in much of the rest of the world had done. The lack of preparation showed.
More likely, than encouraging such a debate, Hollande will limit himself to a cabinet shuffle in an effort to persuade voters that this represents credible change. But are any voters still listening to him?
Above: Marine Le Pen. Photograph by Etienne Laurent/EPA.