Terrible weekend for the French president and his ruling party, the UMP. The first round of local elections that took place in just over 2 000 “cantons” gave the UMP just over 17% of the vote, with the far-right National Front (FN) hot on its tail with 15% (compared with less than 5% in the previous elections 6 years ago). The social-democrats (PS) saved the day with 25%, but attendance was very low, probably the lowest ever with around 45% of voters turning up. These three parties total about 57% of the vote, the remaining 43% being distributed among various right-to-center leaning parties (for about 17%) and left-leaning parties (16%) and Greens (over 8%).
The second round next Sunday will see well over 200 face-offs between the FN and the PS, and around 90 between the FN and the UMP. Will voters turn up? Those who don’t want to see the FN in their backyard will probably move to vote for the opposition whether it is UMP of PS, so the FN is unlikely to win many of these contests but I’m not betting my rhubarb pudding on that either. The facts remain: the UMP has taken a real beating, and the FN means business. There is some correlation between the two, the FN being in part a protest vote against the plutocratic establishment embodied by Sarkozy and the UMP. The same thing occurs on the left, with the Front de Gauche draining votes from traditionnal socialists fed up with the self-destructing ways of the PS.
When a party is out of a race, it traditionally makes “vote recommendations” to its supporters, all the more so when the FN is still in the race. The recommendation is to vote against the FN. This time however, UMP officials are only saying that their supporters should not vote for the FN, that is to say should not vote at all rather than vote for the left. A similar attitude can be seen on the left. This is a noticeable difference in attitude which could mean two things: either the animosity between the two main sides (UMP and PS) is so great that there is no way they’ll support each other against the FN and will take the risk of the FN wining, or that the FN has become sufficiently “politically correct” and does not warrant this line of defence anymore. Clearly the FN surge seen in surveys earlier this month (even though the surveys clearly overstated the FN standing) is in great part due to the very different profile of its new leader, Marine Le Pen, daughter of founder Jean-Marie. The FN programme is still the same (protectonist, anti-euro, anti-global, anti-immigration) and thus very different in many aspects to either the UMP or the PS, but on its most mediatised aspect, immigration, it is exactly in line with the UMP programme – or rather, the UMP has aligned itself with the FN so it’s kind of hard for Sarkozy & Co to dismiss the FN as being anti-republican.
So wait and see, but if the UMP takes another beating on Sunday despite Sarkozy talking tough against Libya at the UN and getting warplanes in the air (which is all meant, essentially, to win him votes), many ministers and counsellors will be hiding below their desks!