|With approval ratings hitting an all-time low in October 2013, French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault continue to be buffeted by an economic, social and political storm. |
Since May 2012, the new government has been through a difficult period of budgetary discipline, higher taxes and announcements of austerity measures to keep to the plan to eliminate public deficit by 2017, which has already alienated broad swathes of the French electorate. In the eyes of many, Hollande’s promises of political change – le changement c’est maintenant – and a ‘fairer’ society have so far largely failed to materialize. The French are still awaiting tangible outcomes from the stimulus package of state intervention and public spending, on which the PS had based its 2012 claim to create jobs and reinvigorate anaemic economic growth. According to a recent BVA poll, more than 80 per cent say Hollande’s policies are ‘ineffective’, while nine out of ten call for the president to change either his policies, his methods or the ministers in Ayrault’s cabinet.
Despite Hollande’s repeated promise that he will reverse unemployment by the end of 2013, French unemployment remains at its highest since the late 1990s. The litany of factory closures and planned layoffs in both the industrial and, now, agribusiness sectors is creating growing social unrest and political discontent with the socialist presidency, while the government seems to be left with little choice but to wait for his key employment policies to bear fruit. Fewer than 100,000 state-subsidized jobs for youths have been created through the emplois d’avenir and only about 11,500 so-called ‘generational contracts’ have been signed by French employers.
In a move reminiscent of Mitterrand’s austerity U-turn in 1983, Hollande has set a new ‘supply-side economics’ path for French socialism. After only six months in office, the newly elected president unveiled a Competitiveness Pact, gifting a massive tax credit to the corporate sector paid for by an increase in VAT and cuts in state spending. Not only did this take the PS further away from Mitterrand’s old left, more importantly it was entirely at odds with Hollande’s ‘war on finance’ campaign pledge, a feeling certainly reinforced by the unpopular pension reform pushed by the Ayrault government last September.
Even more worrying perhaps, the PS’s egalitarian agenda of progressive taxation that helped Hollande win the 2012 elections seems to have made way for one of the highest tax burdens in the Eurozone, and one that is increasingly perceived as intolerable by the low- and middle-class households who had been fed promises that the rich would pay more under a socialist president. Tax increases and the issue of purchasing power are topping the political agenda. A few weeks ago, fears of another winter of discontent forced the government to call for a ‘fiscal pause’ which, according to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault himself, is still unlikely to materialize before the beginning of 2015. More recently, the large-scale protest against the government’s ecotax on heavy goods vehicles in Brittany has revealed the breadth and depth of political discontent in the country.
Undeniably, the difficulties confronted by the Socialist executive are also political – internal feuding, ministerial rivalries and couacs – wrong notes – have left the public with an impression of political amateurism, at best. The precarious balance that continues to exist between the leftist and the more social-liberal factions of the PS has become increasingly apparent. It is perhaps on cultural issues that the divisions in the current presidential majority have become most visible, as the Socialists have begun to experience the limits to their cultural polarization strategy. Whilst the law on same-sex marriage certainly worked remarkably well as a tool to push the UMP further to the right, the French Left is now in danger of succumbing to a political backlash on immigration issues. The controversy sparked by Manuel Valls’s statements about Roma or the recent ‘Leonarda’ deportation case have emphasized the instability of the coalition formed with the EELV Greens, as well as divisions within the PS itself, putting Hollande once again under pressure for his alleged indecisiveness and lack of authority.
All this should be good news for the right-wing opposition. It is not. The UMP is still struggling to formulate coherent policy alternatives to the Socialist government, although there are now signs that the party is shifting firmly to the right on the economy. Following disastrous leadership elections in November 2012, the issue of who leads has been postponed to the 2016 open primaries that the UMP will hold to select its future presidential champion, effectively leaving the party with a low-popularity acting head. Jean-François Copé finds himself under pressure both from the two main presidential hopefuls Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon, and by an ebullient Front National. The latter seems to be riding the current wave of discontent and looks to win the 2004 Euro elections next June, where it could well crystallize political dissatisfaction.
As in 1983, then, the forthcoming municipal elections may produce a perfect storm for the French Left. Thirty years ago, the socialists suffered massive electoral losses after less than two years in office, and thirty year on, the ruling party is bracing itself for mid-term elections which have traditionally been propitious for anti-incumbent and protest votes in France. All by-elections held since 2012 have seen heavy losses for the Left, with Socialist candidates failing to progress into the runoff on a number of occasions. Whilst mostly beneficial to the UMP opposition, these elections have also witnessed a steady consolidation of the FN’s performance.
In a system where elections other than the presidentials are increasingly beset by low turnout, abstention is likely to be high – the 2008 municipals already saw the lowest turnout (66.5 per cent) since 1947. The PS also has a lot to lose – 29 of the 40 largest cities are controlled by Left-leaning councils. The party’s one ray of hope comes from the fact that voters may be focusing more on local issues than the national situation in deciding their vote. For the more entrenched Socialist mayors, an appeal to their own records as incumbents may save some of them. In some cases, the PS also has an ally in the shape of the PCF, as exemplified by the union of the Left in Paris. A level of Left solidarity may work to the PS’s advantage in the face of challenges from the Right. Yet the arrangement is not ubiquitous. The local votes by the PCF members seem to indicate that a majority of the party’s grassroots are still leaning towards the Mélenchon-dominated Front de Gauche. The party is still allying itself with Mélenchon in Marseille, Lyon, Nice, Bordeaux, Lille or Strasbourg, where it threatens to split the Left vote in the first round while simultaneously putting many of its c.9,000 councilors at risk.
For its part, the UMP is not expecting a miraculous turnaround from the 2008 debacle. Some cities look within reach given the parlous level of PS support – regional capitals such as Toulouse, Strasbourg and Dijon, as well as other large cities such as Rouen, Angers, Reims and Amiens are certainly attainable. The acid test will come in the largest cities – Paris and Lyon, in particular – where only a precipitous decline in PS vote could convert into a UMP victory. Key, also, will be the extent to which the ever-fluctuating ‘Centre’ can establish itself for the municipals. Since Bayrou’s disastrous showing in 2012, coming a distant fifth in the Presidentials and losing his Assembly seat, its implantation regionally may stem the decline, and cooperation with Borloo’s UDI provides a popular, visible partner to challenge the UMP’s increasingly narrow moderate flank. The municipal outcome will certainly be closely watched in the city of Pau where Bayrou hopes to reinvigorate a moribund MODEM and to put his presidential candidacy on track for 2017.
The unknown remains the FN’s ability to overcome finally its organizational weakness at the local level. The electoral system can only benefit it in towns where its list can top the ballot – the seat bonus allocated to the winner should secure it a number of municipalities. Straight dominance of councils is not its most likely impact. Dislodging the UMP from overall control, and increasing the pressure to consider local alliances, is the most obvious way in which the FN can make its presence felt. Its municipal election charter stakes out an ideological territory very similar to that of the UMP. However, undoubtedly the party wishes to maximize its independent gains to consolidate its legitimacy for the next election cycle.
With 700 lists announced to date, its best chances are to be found in the small péri-urbain towns, mainly in the South and North-East. There are about 80 cities with more than 3,500 inhabitants in which the FN candidates won over 40 per cent in the second round of the 2012 legislatives. In nearly a quarter of these, the far right won an overall majority. The towns to watch in the South are Istres, Tarascon, Carpentras, Aubagne, Fréjus, Bédariddes and Saint-Gilles; in the North-East, the Le Pen-Mélenchon battleground of Hénin-Beaumont, as well as Forbach and Noyelles.
Should more than the expected handful of councils fall to the FN, or the UMP benefit from a generous opposition bounce, March 2014 could mark the beginning of an electoral blight for the Socialists which could stretch to 2017 – just as the 2008 municipals did for Nicolas Sarkozy through to 2012.
A shorter version of this article can be found on the webpage of the Social Democracy Observatory, at Policy Network, a leading think-tank and international political network.