|To date, the new departmental elections of March 2015 don’t seem to be triggering much interest among the French public. As we have discussed previously, there are many indications that these local elections will serve simply as a referendum on national politics and the government’s economic trajectory.|
Overall, the outcome of the election already seems clear. The Socialists will lose a large proportion of the 50 departmental councils they currently hold: the most pessimistic PS predictions see the party’s local base dropping to 20 departments. After a brief respite and short-lived rebound in popularity following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in January, both the president and government’s ratings have fallen down again this month. A socialist free fall in the departmentals would add another small but significant burden to a now de facto minority Socialist government, split over its own economic reforms and now forced to press the panic button that is Article 49-3’s confidence vote to pass its core legislation.
Socialist losses will clearly be aggravated by increased divisions in the left camp. Party dispersion had already caused severe damage to the PS in the 2014 municipal elections. The Greens in particular are continuing their move away from their former partners in government towards Mélenchon’s radical left, hoping for a French version of Syriza’s political momentum. As a result, the PS is left with nothing but its traditional flanking allies of the PRG Radicals, and will face competition from the Greens and/or neo-Communists in about half of the cantons. There is no doubt these parties will back any Socialist candidate in a run-off but their competitive presence in the first-round might just split the left vote enough to deprive the PS of such an opportunity. Already, talks of a possible cabinet reshuffle immediately after the elections show that the PS is aware of the urgent necessity of bringing the Greens and ‘rebel’ socialist MPs back into the parliamentary majority.
The majority of the socialist losses should in all probability swing to the UMP and its centrist allies, with the FN lying in wait to grasp as large a number of councillors as possible. The right is presenting a more united front in the departmentals. What marks out the elections since 2012 however has been the mainstream right’s inability to capitalise completely on the swing against the left, as revealed most evidently by the outcome of last year’s European elections. Compared with the latter, the current balance of power in the few polls taken across the country looks slightly more favourable to the left nationally, with 36.3% on average, while the centre and mainstream right would receive just over a third of the votes at a 34% national average. Polls show only marginal gains for the Front de Gauche and the Greens, suggesting that a Greek coattail effect will probably fail to materialise in the French context.
Sarkozy’s highly anticipated return to national politics is proving nothing but complicated, and it has not yet produced the desired political results. The recent electoral defeat in the legislative by-election in Doubs has revealed some weaknesses in Sarkozy’s leadership, and also laid bare internal disagreement over the best strategy against the FN. These reflect diverging views about where to position the party both ideologically and strategically for the 2017 elections. The UMP leader seems to be losing ground even among core UMP supporters who have traditionally formed the backbone of his popular support. Sarkozy faces competition from his main rival, Alain Juppé, who occupies a more centrist position within the party and could well take the lion’s share come the 2016 presidential primary.
Perhaps the most striking thing to date about these elections are the voting intentions reported for the FN. For first-round vote intentions, Marine Le Pen’s party is currently polling ahead of all other parties at an average 27% of the vote – just ahead of the UMP (24%), and some eight points ahead of the Socialist Party (19%). Based on current FN popularity and the electoral cycle, our model of forecasting the FN vote in second-order elections yields an estimated 26% of the vote nationally*. As was already the case in the 2014 Europeans, the size of the FN support in polls reflects in part the party’s advantage in voter engagement and differential turnout rate, which suggest a stronger potential for voter mobilisation by the extreme right.
Since the Socialists’ victory in 2012, the narrative of the FN leading the polls is not new – the 2014 European election saw the party returned with just under a quarter of the vote, and 24 seats. Perhaps more importantly, elections where the FN had been notoriously weak in the past, such as the municipals and the Senate, saw the party make significant gains. With an estimated membership of about 70,000 and a growing sub-national middle-level elite, Marine Le Pen is succeeding in rebuilding the local base of the party which had been so severely damaged by the mégrétiste split of the late 1990s. Having found it difficult in the past to field candidate in all localities, the double candidature has caused its own headaches. Embarrassing revelations about parachuted candidates and candidates unaware they were even standing have inevitably raised their heads where the party is desperate to secure the public relations victory of as complete a national slate as possible. This year, nevertheless, the FN will have the strongest presence of all French parties in the departmentals, running tandems in more than 90% of the cantons.
All this corroborates the FN’s political momentum and growing institutionalisation since 2011. But of course, the innovation of the gender parity ‘binômes’ notwithstanding, the electoral system remains decidedly traditional in the Fifth Republic mould. For the second round, the mainstream parties seem likely to re-establish a lead, although there is only a single poll on this, from the end of last year. The two-round majoritarian system means that, despite leading the polling, the FN will not romp home with a majority of councillors. Furthermore, whilst the names standing for election are not high-profile nationally, there is a vote premium for local figures – not a set of notables that the FN can yet boast in any numbers. Lastly, given that tandems must win over 12.5% of registered voters to progress to the runoff, an anticipated turnout of about 43% means that the threshold for participation could be as high as 29% of the valid vote this year, mechanically lowering the odds of FN presence in the second round.
In the end, the FN’s likely main effect will be that which it has played at numerous elections over the last 40 years – the nuisance party, which denies the UMP valuable support in the first round and in second round triangulaires, and forces voters to hold their noses whilst they form the famous front républicain with the mainstream opponent to the frontiste. Yet, as the by-election in Doubs showed in February, the willingness of voters, let alone politicians, to endorse this approach is ever less certain. Furthermore, a UMP electorate either demobilised by a poor first-round performance, or open to the radical flank, could see Socialists struggle in run-offs against the FN.
As well as being a nuisance, then, the FN looks set to enjoy another breakthrough election with record numbers of elected councillors, a kingmaker role in some departments, and the tantalising prospect of one or two departmental council presidencies potentially within their grasp. Its best chances are around its National Assembly constituencies – Var and Vaucluse – and some of its municipal successes from last year – Pas-de-Calais, Gard and Aisne. Key strategic issues concern the immediate aftermath of the elections, where tactical pacts will be made behind closed doors. For a set of local elections, the temptation to forge some sort of alliance with the FN, either through second-round vote allocation, or more probably through collusion to secure council presidencies in the so-called ‘third round’, is high. A similar situation in the regional elections of 1998 saw the moderate right fall into inter-necine warfare over such acceptance of FN support. That temptation is now so much the greater when half of UMP supporters would endorse such agreements. Whatever happens in March will give an indication of the robustness of France’s traditional cordon sanitaire around the FN, as well as acting as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the next big electoral rendez-vous – the regionals in December 2015.
* Revised estimate: at the time of writing this blog in late February, the latest available figure for FN popularity was 24% (positive ratings as of December 2014), yielding a higher estimate of 30% of the national vote in the departmentals.