Last Sunday, June 17, the French—well, some of them (voter abstention was unusually high)—went to the polls for the fourth time in 2012, bringing the year’s election season (two rounds for president and another two for the parliament’s lower house) to a close. As a result, France has a new president, a new government, and a new National Assembly. Now that the campaigning is over, are there any general conclusions to be drawn about the 2012 cycle? Americans like to glean election results for signs of “realignments.” Do France’s elections over the past two months show evidence of shifting political tides?
In many ways, the French political landscape looks remarkably stable: this year’s elections were, for the most part, classic left-right contests. If anything, it could be argued that France’s famously fragmented political spectrum has become streamlined, evolving towards an almost “Anglo-Saxon” system of bipolarization. Yet this is, I think, somewhat misleading. The 2012 elections have occurred in the midst of a major international crisis (the Eurozone meltdown and the prospect of a new recessionary dip) that has weakened the French economy, shaken its political class, and unsettled the country’s already tenuous sense of national identity. The left-right confrontation that prevailed in this year’s elections may look conventional, but in light of the circumstances, this familiarity is misleading: this traditional cleavage has played itself out in a context of considerable ideological uncertainty and partisan reconfiguration.
The Socialists Rule (Everything)
Still, the most important point about the parliamentary elections is that the French left has won its first parliamentary victory since 1997 and the Socialist Party (PS) its first outright majority since 1981. In the fourteenth National Assembly of the Fifth Republic, the socialists will constitute a formidable voting bloc of 302 députés (including twenty-odd independent or “divers gauche” members, in addition to 280 who are card-carrying members of the PS). The socialists now have a lock on all the country’s elected offices. In addition to the presidency, the government, and the assembly, the left has (since November 2011) a majority in the Senate (177-164). It also controls twenty-one of the twenty-two metropolitan regional councils (since 2010), most departmental councils (61-40), and many of the largest cities (Marseilles, Nice, and Bordeaux being notable exceptions). Never in the history of the Fifth Republic—or in French history, for that matter—have socialists so completely dominated all levels of government.
Moreover, the Ayrault government has bolstered its democratic legitimacy as a result of the elections. 25 ministers (out of 35) gambled their portfolios by running for parliament, on the understanding that they would have to resign if they lost (an odd quirk of the French system, since députés who are appointed to the government must in any case yield their seats to alternates). Every one of them was victorious (unlike, say, Alain Juppé in 2007, whose defeat in Bordeaux forced him to resign from the Fillon government).
In addition to the seats they hold in their own right, the socialist majority is cushioned by an array of smaller leftist parties. The Left Radicals (Parti radical de gauche, or PRG, which is in fact the most centrist of these little parties) took 13 seats. Currently, 15 députés are required to constitute a groupe parlementaire or “parliamentary group,” which are the basis upon which leadership positions and committee assignments in the assembly are distributed. In the past, the Left Radicals sat with the socialists. This time, they hope to recruit enough unaffiliated députés to form a group of their own. The green party, EELV (Europe Écologie-Les Verts), with 17 seats, should also get its own group, thanks in large part to an electoral pact it signed with the PS, well before its presidential candidate, Eva Joly, received an underwhelming score.
The most significant newcomer is the Left Front (Front de Gauche, FDG), the brainchild of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the dissident socialist and the new force on the far left. Mélenchon himself lost the fight he picked with Marine Le Pen, whom he hoped to defeat in the northern Hénin-Beaumont district. He came in third on the first round and endorsed the socialist candidate, who beat Le Pen (barely) on the second. But 10 members of his party (which includes a number of communists) did manage to win seats. They will now lobby the socialists to lower the threshold for constituting a parliamentary group. Though its caucus is small, the Front de Gauche represents the emergence of the first significant political movement on the “left of the left” since the French Communist Party’s implosion.
For now, the large socialist majority gives President Hollande and the Ayrault government considerable political latitude. They are not beholden to the FDG or EELV (though the latter was given a few cabinet portfolios). Yet it is quite likely that Hollande will soon disappoint his party’s left, with which he has long had an uncomfortable relationship. Dealing with the Eurozone crisis and the scale of government debt might require the new president to make the kind of pragmatic compromises that have led left-wing voters in the past to grow disillusioned with “la gauche au pouvoir” (the left in power). Though he has yet to demonstrate that he is a permanent force in French politics, Mélenchon and the FDG could well become a refuge for “les déçus de Hollande”—especially since Mélenchon has staked out positions well to Hollande’s left on the key issues of the day (taxation, Europe, Merkel , and so on).
The UMP is Torn
Meanwhile, the right took a beating: as a whole, the center right won 229 seats, of which 194 went to the UMP. This is down from 345 and 313, respectively. Yet the real story of this campaign was the relentless pressure that the National Front (FN) exerted on the UMP. In itself, this is not surprising: in many ways, the most reliable narrative in French politics over the past three decades has been the FN’s steady growth. What is new is the increasing permeability between the so-called “republican right” and the far right. One of Jacques Chirac’s few genuinely principled accomplishments was to erect a firewall between his party and Le Pen’s (who hated him accordingly). Now, the taboo against associating with the FN has been lifted.
This process was, of course, initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy. He showed that on a number of key issues—security and immigration—he could “do Le Pen” better than the old goose-stepper himself. This tactic at least had the (marginal) merit of making formal alliances with the FN unnecessary. Two things have since changed. The UMP now stands defeated: it’s weaker, in the opposition, and could use an ally. Also, the FN is reinvigorated: in Marine Le Pen, it has a charismatic young leader who has undertaken a largely successful campaign to “de-diabolize” her party’s image. An increasingly uninhibited center right and an emboldened far right might make some kind of collusion too tempting to resist, particularly once Hollande’s honeymoon is over.
The UMP’s new attitude was evident in the “ni-ni” strategy adopted between the two rounds: in other words, it supported neither the socialists nor the far right. Specifically, in three-way races (les triangulaires) between one of its own candidates, the FN, and a left-wing figure (as well as other races where it was in a position of having to choose between a socialist and a frontiste), the UMP made clear that it would support only its own candidate (or affiliated parties), rejecting strategic voting or endorsements. It refused to decide, in short, if, given the choice, it would prefer a socialist to a frontiste or vice-versa.
The “ni-ni” strategy does not really satisfy anyone, even if some see it as the lesser evil. The question the UMP has to face is whether it shares any values with the FN: are they ultimately both right-wing nationalist parties of differing flavors, or are they two fundamentally different political movements? The latter view is embraced by the UMP’s Gaullist and republican current, which abhors the FN and has no qualms about saying so. Proponents of this line include the former finance minister François Baroin, Senator Fabienne Keller, and rising star Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (known as “NKM”).
Yet the argument about the two parties’ “shared values” is gaining currency. Nadine Morano, a former Sarkozy minister, gave an interview during the campaign to Minute, a far-right magazine. The Droite Populaire (“Popular Right”), a nationalist caucus within the UMP, has been openly flirting with frontiste ideas for some time (see my earlier post on the homophobic remarks of one its members, Christian Vanneste). These are forces that favor a policy of droitisation—a harder right-wing line, with all that this implies in terms of overtures to the FN. Significantly, many of these figures lost their seats (including Morano and half of the Droite Populaire’s deputies, notably Vanneste). This will bolster their argument that the UMP should make electoral alliances with the FN, just as the PS helps the greens and the Left Radicals to get elected by agreeing not to oppose them in selected districts.
Some of these issues will be addressed in the UMP’s leadership conference in November (which is predicted to feature a leadership battle between current party leader Jean-François Copé and former Prime Minister François Fillon). The larger issue is that the UMP is losing its “far-right inhibitions”: in the recent past, the party officially frowned upon over sympathy for the FN. This is no longer the case.
The FN “De-Diabolizes” Itself
Meanwhile, the FN is strong. Its makeover has been largely successful. While in raw numbers its achievement on Sunday was rather insignificant—it won merely two seats out of 577—it is of great symbolic importance. The FN has long complained that parliamentary elections (a version of the first-past-the-post system, only with two rounds) is unfair and unrepresentative. The only time it has had significant parliamentary representation was when in 1986 François Mitterrand briefly implemented a system of proportional representation. This year, the FN managed to win seats despite the hurdles the current system raises. Marine Le Pen can plausibly argue that she built on her strong third-place finish in the presidential election, succeeding in a contest that disfavors her party.
While it will be too small to have a parliamentary group (and attendant perks) in the new assembly, the FN’s two new députés seem likely to attract attention. One is Gilbert Collard, an effusive lawyer with a penchant for high-publicity cases, who was elected in the Gard. His politics are all over the place. He’s been a rocardien socialist as well as a chiraquien. In the 1988 election, he even supported a Trotskyist. He’s not a card-carrying member of the FN, but is personally loyal to Marine Le Pen. The other winner serves as a reminder that the FN is a family business. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is Marine Le Pen’s niece and Jean-Marie’s granddaughter. Her father is the former head of the FN’s youth organization. A twenty-two year old student at Paris’ Assas law faculty, Maréchal-Le Pen is the youngest député in the history of the Fifth Republic. Both Collard and Maréchal-Le Pen won three-way races against candidates from the UMP and the PS. Both embody Marine Le Pen’s aspiration to make the FN more open, less thuggish, and more “presentable.” If they can be disciplined and persuasive, rather than just quirky, they might establish themselves as major opposition voices to Hollande’s policies.
The Center Withers
Moreover, the 2012 elections marks another step in the tortuous story of France’s center, which is reminiscent of what Palmerston said about the Schleswig-Holstein crisis (“Only three people… have ever really understood it—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it”). Basically, in 2002, the UDF, the old centrist party, split: some members joined Chirac’s newly-created UMP, while others remained in the rump party. Under the leadership of François Bayrou, the UDF eventually rebaptized itself the Democratic Movement (Mouvement démocratique, or MoDem).
A Christian Democrat by instinct and a liberal by conviction, Bayrou supports Europe, fiscal responsibility, and public liberties and opposes intolerance and xenophobia. Consequently, though he is essentially a moderate conservative, he placed himself, between 2007 and 2012, in the opposition to Nicolas Sarkozy. Bayrou won 9.13% of the vote in the presidential election’s first round (down from 18.57% in 2007). Subsequently, he declared that he would “personally” vote for Hollande on round two. In other words, the leader of a traditionally right-wing party endorsed a socialist. As he has acknowledged himself , Bayrou has paid the price for towing this confusing line: in his district in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, both the UMP and the socialists ran candidates against him. Bayrou was defeated, losing a seat he has held on and off for the past twenty-four years.
The centrists have only two députés in the new assembly. Bayrou’s career is probably over. The question is whether the non-Gaullist, Christian democratic, and liberal right can be united into some kind of coherent movement. The man of the hour is Jean-Louis Borloo, a former minister under Chirac and Sarkozy. He belongs to the centrist Parti radical valoisien (the latest incarnation of the party of Clemenceau and Daladier, from which the Left Radicals split off in the 1970s). In this capacity, he announced, immediately after Sunday’s election, the creation of a new centrist group in the assembly, the Union of Democrats and Independents (the Union des démocrates et indépendants, or UDI). In addition to the Parti radical, it will include right-wing centrists (le Nouveau centre) and what’s left of the MoDem. Though Borloo is personally popular (as Bayrou once was), it may be difficult for him to have much of an impact: not since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Raymond Barre has this political tradition played the leading role on the right.
Finally, it is important to note that the French political class is changing its look. Though gender parity is still far from being achieved (despite the help of legislation favoring it), there will be more women in this assembly than ever before—155 out of 577. The new assembly is also considerably younger than the previous one: only 40 députés were born before 1945.
In sum: the socialists are stronger than ever before, but their ideological identity—particularly in the context of the global economic crisis—is fluid, and the emergence of a resurgent far left gives the socialists a place to seek sanctuary when the business of governing gets tough, as it inevitably will; the center-right finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis, with its members uncertain if they are moderate conservatives or hard right-wingers; the National Front continues to call many of the shots in French politics and is poised to declare itself the “true” political opposition; meanwhile, the center has (temporarily?) vanished and French politicians are younger and, increasingly, women. The left-right dynamic still prevails, in short, but in a context that is very much in flux.