|Coverage of the departmental elections during the campaign has been muted. For a new electoral level covering an entirely redistricted set of territories, and using a radical new tandem of male/female candidatures to ensure gender parity, the column inches devoted to the race were minimal in France, and almost non-existent abroad. Media interest only really picked up when the Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, dusted off some old rhetoric, and announced that the Front national (FN) was a significant threat to democracy, and that what its leader, Marine Le Pen, stood for was a challenge to French democratic values. After Mme Le Pen’s protracted campaign of ‘dédiabolisation’, the Left-wing premier was pushing for a ‘rediabolisation’.|
The election polls suggested that the FN could expect anything in the vicinity of 30% of the vote. Le Pen and her politburo consistently underlined that the FN could now reasonably be seen as France’s first party. The outcome of the first round of voting in the departmental elections has confirmed that the FN is not France’s first party. With 29% of the vote and the FN behind at 25.2%, the UMP and its centrist allies in the UDI have taken that title. Hollande’s PS and its left radical allies have fallen back to 21.5% of the vote – an entirely expected sanction of an unpopular president and government. Despite a rise in turnout –over 6 points higher than the nadir of 2011–abstention has been high again with half (49.8%) the electorate staying home on Sunday.
Thanks to its well established base of local notables, the PS has avoided a major electoral setback. Its score is an improvement on its disastrous 14% showing in last year’s Europeans. The left bloc is neck-and-neck with the mainstream right: globally, the left has won 36.9% of the vote compared with 36.6% for the UMP and other centrist and right-wing candidates. The results show however the deleterious effect of party fragmentation: left-wing candidates have not managed to progress to the run-off in a over a quarter of the cases (about 525 cantons). Lessons need to be learned if the left wants to ensure participation in the decisive round of the 2017 presidential.
The ball is now in the court of the Greens (EELV) and the Front de Gauche. The former appear politically marginalized while Mélenchon’s neo-communist alliance has had only limited success. The Socialists’ erstwhile coalition partners, have managed only 2%, although this reflects problems in electoral arithmetic in the many cases where EELV candidates were running together with other parties. The Front de Gauche has taken 6.1%. Small parties of the left are unlikely to feature heavily in next week’s deciding round, and there will be strong incentives for the Greens to return to the bosom of a still hegemonic presidential PS.
Nicolas Sarkozy and the UMP emerge as clear winners. For Sarkozy, the message is clear – “l’alternance est en marche” [“alternation is on the way”]. So confident is he of a victory which will echo through to 2017, he has called for UMP voters not to support the FN or the PS in the run-offs. This position is consistent with the UMP’s ‘neither nor’ line since 2011, which has taken the front républicain out of the mainstream right’s agenda. Rather, Sarkozy has called for FN voters to join his party as a real alternative to the PS.
The Union of the Right –which in many cases has included Bayrou’s Modem locally– has proved once again a winning formula. In contrast to the left, the situation of the right illustrates the efficiency of first-round coalition strategies. With 29.4% of the vote, the level of support for the UMP, UDI and Modem is very similar to that of those parties running separately in the 2014 Europeans (30.8%). The strategic positioning of the UMP will nevertheless confront issues of ideological coherence in future national elections. The UDI and Modem centrists might not be willing to endorse what could be yet another attempt by Sarkozy to take his party further to the right. This may provide a favorable opportunity to more moderate UMP presidential hopefuls such as Alain Juppé.
Following an uninterrupted series of electoral triumphs, the FN vote may at first glance seem to have plateaued. With 25.2% of the vote, Marine Le Pen’s party is showing only marginal gains on its previous record high score of last year’s Europeans (25%). Recall also that both Paris and Lyon were absent from the departmental elections, representing two large metropolitan areas where the FN is traditionally much weaker electorally.
Possible reasons for the FN’s relative underperformance include the many controversies surrounding xenophobic and homophobic FN candidates and the strong anti-FN campaign by Manuel Valls and the socialists. The rise in voter participation seems also to indicate that mainstream voters may have turned out in greater number to counter the electoral progression of the far right. Lastly, a slightly more politically audible UMP and Sarkozy’s reiterating his favourite rightist themes might have played against yet another Marine blue wave.
Nonetheless, this should not conceal the electoral consolidation by the FN, and steady progression across all electoral levels. With a total of about 5.1 million votes and 12% of eligible voters, the party has achieved its best score ever in a local election, outperforming its European election success – 4.7 million votes and 10.1% of registered voters. This performance is even more remarkable given that the party lacks the local base of notables which is crucial in local elections such as the municipals or the cantonals. Overall, the result is in line with the party’s previous performance relative to its polling scores. Working class support is very high once again, as is the regional polarization of the FN vote across the North-East and Mediterranean South. The departmentals represent another step towards FN institutionalization and the gradual reconstruction by the party of its local elite.
Whilst not the first party nationally, the FN has topped Sunday’s polls in 43 out of 98 departments, winning its best scores in its traditional strongholds: Var (38.9%), Aisne (38.8%), Vaucluse (37.4%), Gard (35.5%), Haute-Marne (35.1%) and Oise (35.1%). The FN has performed particularly well in those areas which returned its deputies to the National Assembly in 2012 –Vaucluse and Gard, and a first-round victory in le Pontet in the Vaucluse. Mayoral successes of last year have led to council success in Hénin-Beaumont, Hérault and Fréjus, with another first-round victory in the last of these. Similarly, in Doubs, where the FN came within a whisker of beating the Socialists in a recent by-election, the radical right has managed to win the first round with around a third of the vote. Eurville-Bienville in the Haute-Marne hosted another first-round victory. These are all regions where the FN has previously performed well, and represent familiar traces on a political radar showing much greater activity for UMP-UDI candidates across the country.
Leading party in the first round of the 2015 departmentals
Beyond a steep decline in Socialist-controlled councils – the PS currently holds 61 departments - what can we expect to see next week? Of course, all eyes will be on the FN performance. Whilst the party’s own rhetoric in the weeks and months preceding the election now appears to be hubris, there is little relief to be had from the FN’s second place for those fearful of its rise. The increase in vote since the 2011 cantonal elections is significant and next week’s run-offs will undoubtedly push the party well beyond double-digit seats. In 2011, the FN managed two seats in total – a score which has already been overtaken. The FN is set to compete in 1,100 runoffs, including 772 duels and 297 three-way contests. In 2011, the party had progressed to the second-round in 403 cantons. Possible FN wins include Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, Vaucluse and Var.
First-round results have already given an indication of the likely final distribution of seats: a small number of candidates won absolute majorities at the first round – 220 seats for the moderate right, 56 for the left and 8 for the FN (remembering that each seat has two candidates because of the parity binôme). Few socialist bastions will remain as such. As anticipated before the first round, the PS could well go down to holding less than 20 departmental councils, losing in particular its traditional bastions in the Ile-de-France, Nord and Pas-de-Calais. This could be the worst defeat in the history of PS cantonal elections since 1992 when the party’s power base shrank to 23 departments.
A socialist electoral debacle could give the UMP and its allies victory in over 70 councils. The UMP looks set to win back many of its notable losses not so much from 2011, but 2008 where eight departments were poached by the left. Ain, Lot-et-Garonne and Indre-et-Loire all look within easy reach of the UMP-UDI alliance. Most symbolically, Corrèze, the President’s department which he won for the Socialists in 2008, also looks under threat after a close race in 2011, as does Manuel Valls’ personal fiefdom of Essonne.
All of the global indicators point towards intense dissatisfaction with the socialist incumbents. Of course, at a mid-term election, one would expect an inevitable drop in executive support. But the endorsement of a Moderate Right opposition only just reconquered by Nicolas Sarkozy, one of France’s most unpopular Presidents to date, with a close second place given to another party of the right, and one which has comprehensively gathered alienated left-wing support gives the mark of the problems which the left-wing leaders have in making any positive impact in the next two years leading into 2017’s presidential and legislative elections.