On Sunday the French regional elections saw the ruling right wing UMP take a beating and the Socialist Party (PS) extend its already extensive reach across French regional government. The elections shine a light on exactly how unpopular Sarkozy’s government has become.
The right were determined to make this election about national identity and Islam and the vote was conducted in the context of proposed laws to ban the Burka. Whilst playing the race card backfired for Sarkozy the dangerous game that the right were playing stoked the fascist vote and saw the National Front (FN) resurrected, gaining 12%.
The FN’s campaign focused on the ‘danger’ that Islam posed to France and, as Sarkozy has just found out, if you encourage people to be racists they will vote for the down the line racists.
The results had added significance for the FN as long time leader Le Pen is 81 and is expected to step down from the party’s leadership soon. The regional elections were an opportunity for potential leaders to jockey for position and Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, who is already an MEP, has emerged as the likely successor.
The election’s Islamophobic rhetoric spilled over into direct action with dozens of pig masked protesters raiding a restaurant last week for the ‘offense’ of selling halal burgers. Commenting on Sarkozy’s tactics Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit pointed to the FN rise and said "Bravo Mr. Sarkozy, here's the result."
However the story was not one sided and the French left, which has not always been strong on these issues, were able to confront these racist ideas with mixed success. The New Anti-Capitalist Party ran a Hijab wearing candidate to national uproar and most parties of the left refused to compromise with the anti-Islam mood.
The Greens ran a very clear anti-racist campaign and saw their vote skyrocket, leaving them as the nation’s third party. It’s clear that whilst French society is seeing a rise in racism, there is a powerful counter trend of anti-racism.
Martine Aubry, leader of the victorious Socialist Party, stressed that “the French sent a clear and strong message. They today expressed their refusal to see a divided France.” That may be overstating the case, but certainly Sarkozy’s poor performance is a real victory for the left.
The rise of Greens was not wholly unexpected though as the Greens first won third place last year at the European elections but their impressive result of 13%, including over 20% in Paris, is a massive leap forward from the last regional elections six years ago in 2004 where the Greens polled just 2%.
When the second round of voting takes place next Sunday this puts the left in a formidable position because the Greens explicitly position themselves as a party of the left and take part in Socialist Party led coalitions. Negotiations have already begun between the PS and the Greens for joint lists in the second round elections which will see unprecedented Green representation. This means that while the left won 20 of the 22 French regions last time they are in position to extend that already impressive hold on regional government.
However, one of the headlines of the election is the record low turnout with over half the electorate refusing to cast their vote. A closer look at the Socialist Party support sees that they have had a successful night because their vote has collapsed less spectacularly than Sarkozy’s vote rather than because of some revival in their fortunes.
The Socialist Party has been riven with splits and rows over the last few years, that saw some leading members leave the party. Likewise Sarkozy’s leadership has been consistently rocked by internal rows and disaffection – including court cases and high profile walk outs. However, unlike the PS, Sarkozy has no potential coalition partners on the right with the FN adamant that they will not lend them support in the second round.
With the center parties losing ground and the good results for the Greens and the FN it’s clear that French society is becoming increasingly polarised, a pattern we’ve seen recently in a number of elections in Europe.
However, the parties of the far left, who stood on a number of unity tickets, did not significantly benefit from the collapse of the center. The left vote was, as usual, split – but this time between left unity coalitions. The New Anti-Capitalist Party (NAP), whose most recognizable figure Olivier Besancenot was the highest polling far left candidate at the last Presidential election, polled a disappointing 2% at their first electoral outing.
Much of the press attention was focused on the fact that one region selected a young female activist who wears the hijab. The party’s leadership were supportive of their candidate but there is no doubt that this was a controversial decision both inside and outside of the party.
The NAP were outshone by the “Face of the Left”, a coalition between disaffected
Socialist Party members, Communists and some smaller parties. They polled a more respectable 6.2%, however both parties will no doubt be disappointed with the results.
What all this means for French politics is clear – that the future is unclear. With racism on the rise and the FN renewal of fortunes the threat of the far right is still very much present. However the right wing government is unloved and faces opposition both at the ballot box and in the streets.
It’s quite possible that this period could see the Socialist Party put their troubles behind them and go on to win the Presidency at the next election, but nothing is certain both because of threats to their right and to their left.
Although those left coalitions to the Socialist Party’s left did not perform very well at this election, their vote did not collapse either and they may still be able to capitalise on the problems of the centre. Certainly the extraordinary rise of the Green vote shows that French voters are willing to look to alternatives and to oppose the growing tide of racism.