Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party were the biggest winners, the Front National exceeded its own official expectations, and the Socialists were humiliated.
Of France’s major towns, only Paris, Lyon and Strasbourg held on to their Socialist administrations and the Socialists were utterly trounced in Marseille.
And yet as recently as June 2012, one month after François Hollande’s election as president, the Socialists comfortably slaughtered the Right in parliamentary elections.
In the two years since then, Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party has almost torn itself apart in a leadership battle and Sarkozy has been the subject of numerous judicial investigations. So how come the clear winners of the municipal elections were the UMP, with an impressive showing for the FN?
What went wrong for the Socialists?
Socialist MP Thierry Mandon declared after the already-disastrous first round of the election last week that the government had gradually alienated all its traditional voters…
- Many blue collar workers, he maintained, lost out as a result of one of the government’s earliest decisions - to end tax-free overtime which had been introduced under Sarkozy.
- Another traditionally left-voting category, teachers, are also fed up. Many were furious about a change in primary school opening and closing times which was clumsily imposed with little consultation, resulting in confusion and anger amongst both teachers and parents.
- Public sector workers, nearly always solid Socialist supporters in France, now fear for their jobs after Hollande’s pledge to find 50 billion euros worth of savings as part of the highly contentious Pacte de Responsibilité. (Under this pact, businesses will no longer have to pay social charges for their employees, in return they must create jobs - though they point out that this cannot be decreed by a government, only by full order books - and the shortfall in government revenue will be offset by 50 billion euros of cuts in state expenditure).
- Thierry Mandon might have added muslim voters who vote overwhelmingly Socialist but are often socially conservative and were angered by the government’s law allowing gay marriage and adoption.
Hollande’s government has certainly alienated many of its traditional voters.
Add to that a failure to produce results on the biggest issues which affect the whole country:
- Unemployment is at record levels, there has been virtually no progress on reducing the country’s deficit and there is considerable resentment over taxes which the president himself conceded in January had reached the limits of acceptability.
- There is little sign of economic growth, and for many low-income families a boost in purchasing power is a priority.
- In his 2012 presidential election campaign, Hollande vowed to unite and soothe what he judged to be a divided and angry country after Sarkozy’s presidency. Amid bad-tempered, sometimes violent demonstrations over everything from gay marriage to environmental taxes, many Socialists MPs now admit that he has conspicuously failed to create harmony.
The consequence was that many voters on the left punished the party by abstaining (figures show that abstentions were higher in areas which usually elect Socialists), or by voting for the Front National. Results indicate that many working class voters defected to the FN.
If Hollande had hoped that a good showing by the Front National would split the right wing vote, he received a bitter awakening. Apart from in some towns such as Avignon, it was often the Socialists, not the UMP, who lost supporters to the FN.
Marine Le Pen, an excellent TV performer, has unquestionably improved the image of the Front National and modernised the party.
Le Pen rejects the label "extreme right" for her party and has threatened to sue media organisations who describe the Front National as such, though she has not yet done so.
On some of the biggest issues, for example the Pacte de Responsibilité, she is closer to the lefter wing of the Socialist party than the right wing UMP. She wants the pact dumped. She claims that it is a gift to big business and that its cuts in public services would not be fair.
The FN has frequently changed its economic leanings. Under Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in the 1980s, the party was particularly vocal in its criticism of trade unions and more friendly to big business. Today it claims to fight for the little man against speculators and the EU.
She is vehemently anti-EU and has gained many working class voters with her insistence that Brussels now runs France.
On immigration, some analysts say there are 2 FN electorates: In southern France, where there is a high population of north-African origin, the FN collects voters from the right, sometimes from well-off areas, as demonstrated in a by election in Brignoles last year. Many of these voters were furious to see Hollande supporters ecstatically waving Algerian and Moroccan flags on the night of his election in 2012.
In northern France, in towns such as Henin-Beaumont, FN voters appears to come mostly from the disaffected poor and seem less interested in issues surrounding immigration.
In opinion polls, FN voters frequently cite rising crime figures as the reason for their decision to choose the party.
What went well for UMP?
The UMP tactic of refusing to make deals with either Front National or Socialist candidates in second round run-offs was clear and prevented messy disagreements. The party defended its refusal to do deals to block the FN, noting that UMP-PS agreements to stop the FN in the past had allowed the party to assert that it was treated unfairly and done nothing to stem its appeal to voters.
Days before the first round of voting came the revelation that former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s mobile phones were being bugged on the orders of investigating magistrates in connection with a party funding enquiry. As a result of the taped conversations he now faces further questions on separate accusations that he tried to influence the course of justice in another case.The phone-tapping and the suspicion among UMP voters that the timing of the new accusations was orchestrated, appears to have led to an emotional groundswell of support for Sarkozy’s party.
The UMP benefited from an almost tangible dislike of Hollande's presidency and his government from UMP-type voters.
What happens now?
In May, French voters will go to the polls again in elections to the European Parliament, followed by Senatorial and then regional elections.
Hollande must act quickly to demonstrate that he is listening to voters, but on the important matter of where France is heading and how it gets there, the president is in an almost impossible situation.
He appears finally to have been convinced, towards the end of 2013, that France needs to improve its business climate if it is to boost employment. Since then his biggest priority has been the success of the Pacte de responsibilité.
The huge number of voters who elected UMP mayors last night are broadly in favour of this pacte (although they doubt Hollande’s ability to see it through.)
But the large number of usually-Socialist voters who deserted the party yesterday, added to the large numbers of Front National voters, want the pacte and its 50 billion euros worth of cuts, scrapped.
Hollande also knows that if France fails to make these cuts, both the EU and financial speculators will lose confidence in the country with potentially dire consequences.
For now, the plan seems to be to try to explain better to the electorate why he feels the pacte is vital.
One of the most telling aspects of this election was that Hollande and the government were so surprised by the scale of their losses in both the first and second rounds.
It is striking how cut off they and France’s left-wing Paris-dominated intelligentsia and media appear to be from the views of ordinary people around France.
This elite does not appear to understand the annoyance of people, often living outside the capital, who want jobs, more purchasing power, less crime and feel they are never the beneficiaries of government handouts.
Judging by the profile of those interviewed in endless newspapers articles, the sons and daughters of this intelligentsia are increasingly rejecting the anti-business attitudes of their parents, whose values often date from May 68, and leaving France in droves for China, London or the USA, attracted by what they see as more business-friendly climates.
But those lower down the social scale often cannot leave France and they’re getting increasingly angry.