Monday, March 15, 2010

French regional elections see center weaken

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.

PS - Center left. UMP - Center right. EE - Greens. FN - far right. FDG, NPA, LO - far left. MoD - center.

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.


ModernityBlog said...

12% that's a lot.

Jim, have you got any sites with a good breakdown on these figures?

Jim Jepps said...

I haven't done as much linking for this post as normal as I was in a bit of a rush - apologies.

I rather liked the Le Monde interactive map thingy although there area few different french sites that break it down.

Raphael said...


I am not sure why you say that French politics is becoming more polarized. The PS is centre-left. The factions of the far left have done well compared to UK, but poorly compared to other elections. The "Front de gauche" has done better than the NPA, and what differentiates it most from the NPA is precisely the fact that it is willing to support the party socialiste and make alliance with it.

The right is historically low and that's great news and is a failure of Sarkozy strategy of imposing a single party on the right. But the political debate in France is not more polarized than usually.

I also think that your description of the burka/Islam debate is way too simplistic; but that's probably for another thread. The real threat of radical Islamists to secular values which are essential in France, and to women's and others rights, is a legitimate debate. This debate has been used a political campaigning tactic in a disgusting way, and this has indeed backfired.

Jim Jepps said...

I don't mean it's an uncomplicated situation but I think it bears scrutiny. Although my spelling might not as I'm not sure if that is the right bear... anyway.

The center right and center left are both in crisis. The centre right party's crisis is deeper and more sudden - which is why the PS has won out, but on an historically low turnout.

The far right is moving up and whilst the far left parties have basically trod water this time the Greens (who have positioned themselves very much on the left, although we can discuss how 'real' this is) have had a phenomenal result.

While center parties of the UMP and PS decline, the FN and Greens improve. If we want to call that something different from polarisation I'm happy - not wedded to the term - but I see that a reasonable way to describe the situation.

I don't think we agree on the burka thing - but I'm not basing this on an abstract view of secularism but on the very real way it played out this time - as you say it was used in a disgusting way. On that I'm being specific about this election rather than a general principle.

From what you say I suspect we're quite close on our view of how the national debate about 'secularism' and 'Islam' played out in this election, but possibly there's more room for debate on the wider issues (which i wasn't trying to tackle in this particular post)

Unknown said...

Many thanks for a helpful post.

A little further explanation gleaned from

PS = Parti socialiste
UMP = Union pour un mouvement populaire
EE = Europe Ecologie
FN = Front national
FDG = Front de gauche
MoD = Mouvement démocrat
NPA = Nouveau parti anticapitaliste
LO = Lutte Ouvrière

I do find French politics terribly confusing. Can anyone explain for me why the Greens "EE" rather than "Les Verts" as I thought they usually are?

Jim Jepps said...

Good question. It's because the regional elections, a bit like locals here, are a bit more complex and confused than the general elections and I'd glossed over a few details to try to help reduce the confusion.

Most of these parties stand as coalitions which are different in each region, so for example the NPA stood with others in Basse-Normandie, Champagne Ardenne, Bourgogne but not in other regions.

The Greens stood with other smaller environmental parties and their partners varied per region and that 'list' was the EE.

If you voted for the EE list inmost places your electing mainly green party people but also a few local, more independent figures.

Raphael said...

As a French living in the UK, I have come to realize that when it comes to secularism, the Channel is more like an ocean. Many things that you take for granted in the UK are shocking to most French. My kids go to a "normal" community non-denominational school, so when they first came back from School singing that God created the stars, I was schocked. Since then, I have learnt a lot - assemblies, nativity plays, visits to the local Church, etc, all things which are completely impossible to imagine in French secular schools, and frankly, all things which are slightly discriminatory for non-Christian children. These anecdotes are just to say that a certain amount of efforts are needed to understand the real nature of this debate in France. Secularism is not abstract in France. In 1994, over a million person demonstrated in Paris against a change in law which would have privileged private denominational school over public secular ones.

The PS does not decline! This is an extremely good result for the PS which is in first position nationally. And while the Greens (and EE even more so) are, like in the UK, a broad Church, they are not really on the left of the PS (they probably span over it actually). They are certainly not (thanks God - and sorry for this transgression to my secularist principles) the equivalent of the FN on the left - that would be more the NPA.


Raphael said...

schocked - should have read shocked, sorry, that's probably my German side... I hope you won't bear it against me :)

Raphael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Jepps said...

Thanks for this.

The PS vote this time was 5,673,918 in 2004 it was 8,938,695 in the first round.

That's means more than one in three people who voted PS last time did not vote PS this time.

Raphael said...

By the same token, the FN vote has collapsed from 3 564 064 in 2004 to 2 223 760 this time. Yet, this is seen as a very "good" result for the FN. What is important is % of voters - see pictures of PS leaders Sunday night and you will see without doubt that this is a victory for them. Although clearly the low turnout is a serious concern for everybody.

Cheers - (with that, I stop arguing, promised).


Jim Jepps said...

You can carry on if you like! :)

I think for the FN they had been generally seen as collapsing in the meantime so their result is seen as a *recovery* from a bad place. Its a good result for them because everyone expected them to do far worse.

But my argument is that the PS did well in the number of seats it received - where we agree - but this is because its support has declined less fast than the right, not because it has had a surge of new voters.

The party itself has had real problems over the last couple of years although this result may help put them back on track.

ModernityBlog said...

Let's us not assume the demise of the FN yet, as much as that would be marvellous.

2 million voters for a neofascist party is not a good thing.