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Analysis: France

France's Socialists take hit in departmental elections

REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

France’s opposition right-wing UMP, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, swept Sunday’s departmental run-off elections with its centrist allies, delivering a blow to the ruling Socialists. The far-right Front National won a quarter of the national vote in last week’s first round but was unable to win any departments outright in the second.

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This is the fourth electoral loss in the past year for the Socialists – after European and local elections, and a loss of their Senate majority. In this weekend’s run-off, the ruling party has now lost nearly half of its departments. 

On Monday morning it appeared that 25 of France’s 101 departments had swung from left to right and only one went the other way. The right and its centrist allies now control two-thirds of France’s departments: 66 will now be run by the right, 34 by the left. One is still up in the air.

In a personal blow to President François Hollande, the Corrèze department, which he led between 2008 and 2012, has gone over to the right.

The results send a message of disapproval to Hollande and the ruling Socialist Party.

Departments are local entities that manage issues like roads, school and welfare budgets and turnout at 49.9 per cent is lower than in parliamentary and presidential polls. But the opposition turned these elections into a national referendum.

Sarkozy, the head of mainstream right UMP, said that voters have “massively rejected” the policies of Hollande and his government.

 “The repudiation of the party in power is undeniable,” he said Sunday night, adding that voters have punished the government “for its lies, its denial and lack of power”.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged the setback for the left but he insisted that the government’s economic policies would remain unchanged.

 “Our economy is going better, thanks to the reforms we have put in place," he said. "The first signs of recovery are there, but I know they are still too imperceptible. That is why my government will redouble our efforts, with the constant focus on employment.”

He also warned of the strong showing for the far-right Front National.

Marine Le Pen’s party won a quarter of the national vote in the first round last week. In the second round it only won about 60 individual seats and failed to win control of any department.

Although visibly disappointed on Sunday night, Le Pen called the results a “magnificent success", establishing the Front National as a viable third party, following victories in last year's European and local elections.

 “These departmental elections are a crucial step in the patriotic movement on its path to power,” she said. “We currently now have a multitude of local links all over France, which will help future victories, notably the regional elections of December.”

While the regional elections are next, the bigger focus is on the presidential elections in 2017.

Le Pen certainly has her eyes on the presidency but she is working on an incremental strategy, making local inroads ahead of the national vote.

As for the other parties, the Socialists are concerned about plummeting approval ratings and it has to contend with an internal split, with a left wing trying to break away from the government's more centre-right economic policies.

On the right, the UMP has been struggling with a power vacuum. Sarkozy has been trying to impose his leadership since he was elected president of the party last year.

After the departmental elections, where his strategy of allying with the centrist UDI party played out with victories, he may well be positioned for an eventual comeback.

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