|With all eyes inevitably on the crash of the Germanwings Airbus A320 in the French Alps, the second round of the 2015 departmental elections received relatively less media attention than would normally be the case. As we discussed in our previous post, much could be learned about the current balance of political power in France from the results of last Sunday’s election. The first round had shown another electoral setback for the ruling socialist party, a notable spike in local support for the FN and the revitalization of the mainstream right. While the PS could only seek to limit its electoral losses in about 30 swing departments, the main goal for the UMP was to reverse the existing distribution of councils across the country and possibly to win a number of PS strongholds. With only a few credible possibilities of winning a majority, the FN was on the other hand mostly contemplating a new electoral high at this level, and a sizeable increase in its contingent of local councillors.|
The outcomes of the 1,905 runoffs across the country have largely confirmed the positions of the main competitors. The main result of the second round is clearly the anticipated landslide victory for the mainstream right. Voter turnout remained about the same at 50% of the electorate, compared with 50.2% a week earlier, which suggests a failure by the PS to mobilize its electorate against the threat of a massive blue wave in the departments. Flat-lining voter participation has played against the socialists’ ability to limit the electoral damage. The ruling party should eventually keep 34 of its 61 departments while the UMP-UDI alliance emerges as the clear winner of Sunday’s elections, likely to take a total of 67 councils. Turning to the FN, gains amount to 62 seats, representing historic far right success at this local level. Despite its strong electoral presence in the first round, the FN has failed nonetheless to seize the departmental councils in Aisne and Vaucluse which were considered possible wins, and the party will have very little nuisance power in determining the council presidency.
Beyond electoral arithmetic, the second round has illustrated some important dynamics of the party system, which are likely to shape electoral competition in the future. A first lesson from the departmentals is that France’s majoritarianism continues to limit political opportunities for parties outside the mainstream. This is as true for the Greens or the Front de Gauche to the left of the political spectrum as it is for the FN, despite growing levels of electoral support for the far right. The fragmented and essentially tripolar structure of competition which was visible in the first round contrasts sharply with the enduring bipolarity in the more formal party system. The impact of the institutional setting is best illustrated by the disproportionality in the departmental ballot: in the first round, there were 6.8 effective electoral parties –we refer here to the classic weighted index proposed by Laakso and Taagepera (1979) to count parties in a given system. Looking at the distribution of seats with a clear political affiliation would take the number of effective parties down to 4.5. Differences are particularly striking for the FN: whilst totalling over a quarter (25.2%) of the first-round vote, Marine Le Pen’s party has won a mere 1.5% of all available 4,108 seats.
The 2015 departmentals will also have clear implications in terms of future party strategies. In many cases, the left has paid a high price for its inability to present a more unified front to voters. Beginning with the critical regional elections next December, the need for parties of the left to build more competitive first-round coalitions is imperative. The spectre of 21 April 2002 is hovering once again over the French socialists , revealing also the limits of Manuel Valls’ Daisy Girl strategy of negative campaigning against Marine Le Pen or, in the lead up to Sunday’s runoffs, the Prime Minister’s attacks against Nicolas Sarkozy. Both Hollande and Valls are in apparent denial over Sunday’s results and they seem incapable of responding to the message sent by French voters. With three political blocs of relatively equal size, the fractionalization of the left-wing vote is a luxury that the PS can simply not afford anymore. How to reconstruct whatever is left of the defunct plural left of the 1990s should dominate the agenda of the next PS party congress in Poitiers in June. Talks of bringing the Greens back into the presidential majority were already under way before the first round. There is little doubt that Sunday’s results will accelerate the process of negotiating a partial return by EELV members into Valls’ government. Convincing the Greens will entail a symbolic recalibration of the government’s environmental policies. This might collide with the otherwise necessary inflexion in the government’s current economic trajectory after voters have addressed yet another strong signal of dissatisfaction with the dominant social-liberal approach of the executive.
Minor parties of the left also appear clearly weakened after Sunday’s results. The PCF has lost one of its two remaining councils in the department of Allier, which corroborates the waning of the historical local power base of the communists in France. In the March 2014 municipals, the PCF had already lost some of its traditional bastions of the so-called ‘red suburbs’ (banlieues rouges) around Paris, such as Bobigny, Saint-Ouen, Blanc-Mesnil and Villejuif. The Greens remain for their part a marginal political force locally. EELV had about 40 councilors since 2011, but has a total of about 25 seats across all departmental councils this year. The party’s campaign has been hampered by internal turmoil and profound disagreement over the strategy vis-à-vis the PS. Immediately after the election, Emmanuelle Cosse asked the government for a complete revision of its policies but the main issue now for EELV’s leader is to arbitrate between pragmatists such as Jean-Vincen Placé, François de Rugy or Denis Baupin who are in favour of returning to the socialist-led parliamentary majority, and those behind Cécile Duflot who support the tactical rapprochement with Mélenchon’s FG.
Compared with the situation of the left, electoral prospects look much brighter to the right of the political spectrum. Nicolas Sarkozy and the UMP have emerged as uncontested winners of Sunday’s elections with a total of 67 departmental councils as opposed to 41 before the election. Moreover, the councils won by the UMP-UDI alliance include a number of historic left-wing strongholds such as Nord, Seine-Maritime, Allier and Côtes-d’Armor. Both Hollande’s Corrèze and Vall’s Essonne have also fallen to the right, showing the depth of the current wave of discontent with the socialist executive. The results of the departmental ballot corroborate the UMP’s dominant position within the party subsystem of the right. They are also a prima facie validation of Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategy of keeping his party firmly to the right to avoid too big an electoral swing of UMP supporters to Marine Le Pen’s FN. Yet, the elections have also demonstrated the necessity of building a more competitive pole with the UDI and, eventually, Bayrou’s Modem. The UMP will therefore confront the challenge of balancing its appeal to the radical fringe of the right-wing electorate, which continues to be tempted by the FN, with the need for tactical agreements and therefore policy convergence with the centrists. Already the latter have expressed their doubts and reservations regarding the ‘neither nor’ line of conduct adopted by their rightist partners vis-à-vis Marine Le Pen’s party and the defunct strategy of the Front Républicain.
Finally, turning to the FN, the results of the second-round show that the party has been only partially successful in translating its surge in first-round support into concrete majorities. The FN has certainly failed in overtaking the UMP as the main party of the opposition. The FN was running in 1,109 cantons, contesting 853 duels and 256 three-way contests, and it has totalled 22.3% of the vote. In the end, the party has won 62 seats, clearly not the nationwide power base that was advertised by its leaders. Despite consolidated electoral returns – remember that the FN was leading the polls in more than 350 cantons last Sunday – this muted performance attests also to the political isolation of the far right and the difficulty for the FN to significantly increase its pool of voters in runoffs outside of its main strongholds. Lastly, Marine Le Pen’s party will not play its role as ‘nuisance’. FN seats could only be key to forming stable council majorities in Aisne, Gard and Vaucluse. A strong impact by the FN might prompt local UMP leaders in those two departments to ignore the rules set out by the party’s national leadership to reject tactical alliances with the far right. Local cooperation with the mainstream right, Marine Le Pen has already warned, will be based upon acceptance of the FN’s election charter which includes council tax cuts and the elimination of all subsidies to so-called ‘communautarist’ associations, while calling for drastic measures against welfare benefit fraud.
While clearly putting an end to a long series of uninterrupted electoral successes since 2010, the FN results should not be taken to mean that Marine Le Pen has lost her electoral momentum. They first and foremost reflect the electoral consolidation of the far right. The geography of the FN second-round vote corroborates the substantial gains made by the party in some of its traditional terres de mission in the more rural Western and central parts of the country such as Orne, Creuse, Calvados, Sarthe, Manche, Eure-et-Loir, Ille-et-Vilaine, Maine-et-Loire, Tarn-et-Garonne and Lot-et-Garonne. These results will clearly provide stronger incentives for FN leaders to accentuate the strategy of de-demonization if they wish to turn the party into a credible governmental alternative to the mainstream. Mixed second round results show however the ambivalence in the current positioning of the party. The latter confronts a trade-off between the continuation of its populist radical right strategies, on the one hand, and the cosmetic of ‘de-demonization’ on the other hand. Populist anti-establishment strategies should still dominate the FN agenda in the forthcoming regional elections in December, while party normalization and credibility should be key to Marine Le Pen’s presidential bid in 2017.