France - elections analysis

After regional poll, should Sarkozy panic?

President Nicolas Sarkozy and his party, the UMP, are reeling from a resounding defeat in Sunday’s regional elections. And, if they didn’t get the message from the result, they will have got it from Monday’s press coverage. But is it really time to panic? Is the left on its way to power? Or can the right rebound?

President Nicolas Sarkozy and PM François Fillon after the post-defeat cabinet meeting
President Nicolas Sarkozy and PM François Fillon after the post-defeat cabinet meeting Reuters

The results saw the left winning control of all the regions in mainland France except for Alsace, and taking 54 per cent of the votes. There was small consolation for the right in the overseas territories, where they won the Indian Ocean island of Reunion and Guyana in Latin America.

The left-leaning press is exultant, while the right-wing media can scarcely hide their shame. Even regional papers joined in, Lyon's Le Progrès dubbing Sarkozy a "hyper-loser", while Clermont Ferrand's La Montagne sees the result as "a national punishment".

The immediate response is a cabinet reshuffle. But, by all accounts, it will be nothing too drastic. A minister or two may be sacrificed but Prime Minister François Fillon and President Nicolas Sarkozy, widely held responsible for the débacle, show no sign of doing the decent thing.

They may be right to keep their cool.

Despite its humiliation in the last presidential and legislative elections, the left already controlled 24 of the 26 regional councils then in existence, thanks to a similar “pink wave” in 2004. So, while Socialist Party (PS) leader Martine Aubry is basking in the warm glow of a rare victory on Monday, she cannot conclude that French voters consider her ready for the presidency or her party ready for government.

France 24 TV on French regional elections

She should certainly be worried about the level of abstention, even if a majority of voters – 51 per cent – did manage to drag themselves to the polling stations in the second round, compared to only 47 per cent in the first round.

That leaves the behaviour of over 20 million voters difficult to predict. Some of them will not vote in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections but others could rally to the right.

In the 2004 regional elections the turnout was 66 per cent. The PS and its allies won 13 million votes, compared to the mainstream right’s nine million.

By 2007, the right had bounced back - albeit with a different leader - winning 19 million in the presidential election, compared to the left's 17 million, and storming on to victory in the legislatives.

The regional result is no doubt largely due to disillusionment with Sarkozy. The media say that his steamroller style has alienated voters. But he is no more domineering than when he was first elected and, if the steamroller had brought the promised results, it seems unlikely that he would have lost much support.

One of Sarkozy’s problems is that he hinted that he would deliver so much. Many of 2007’s Sarkozy voters expected the country to be “modernised”, in the American sense – dynamic bosses would create businesses and jobs all over the place, the government would face down strikers, the dirigiste right-wing old guard would be swept away.

Then came the world economic crisis and businesses went bust, strikes continued and Sarkozy had to rely on the state to keep the economy running and maintain social services.

During the presidential election Sarkozy made a successful bid for another constituency – supporters of the far-right National Front (FN). One of his proudest boasts was that he reduced Jean-Marie Le Pen’s support to 10.4 per cent, whereas the FN leader made it into the second round against Jacques Chirac in 2002.

That trend seemed to be continuing, with the party facing bankruptcy and infighting, although the FN has bounced back this year, going through to the second round in 12 regions.

Again Sarkozy seems to be a victim of the expectations he created. Both Le Pen and the left accused him of stealing the FN’s rhetoric. He denounced crime in the rundown banlieue, which has a large ethnic minority population and decried the alleged threat to France’s traditional values from some forms of Islam. He also promised to curb immigration.

But - for all the heavy policing, deportations and the creation of a Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity – the government does not seem to have been racist enough for thousands of voters who have returned to the FN.

The big question is – will the defectors return? As a comparison of 2004 with 2007 shows, voters may abstain or decide to punish their party in regional elections but return to the fold when it comes to national polls.

The abstainers may wake up when faced with the prospect of a Socialist-led government. And in the presidentials, FN voters will have the chance of voting for their party in the first round and, if it fails to make it to the second, transferring their allegiance to the UMP in the second round.

The Socialists’ first task is to convince French people that the Socialists and their allies can run France. The last time they held the presidency was in 1995. The last time there was a Socialist Prime Minister was in 2002. Since then the party has been racked by factional battles, while failing to come up with policies which distinguish it clearly from the mainstream right.

The Socialists’ second task is to convince their allies to stay with them, especially Europe-Ecologie which did particularly well in these elections.

That should not prove too difficult.

The alternative to alliance with the PS is a hard-left coalition with Olivier Besancenot’s New Anticapitalist Party, the NPA. But the NPA did less well than its main rival, the Left Front, which backed the Socialist Party in last weekend’s second round. If the PS was in power and losing support, the Left Front, and just conceivably the Greens, might break away, but, with parliamentary seats and even cabinet positions in the possible offing, the prospect does not seem particularly tempting.

So Sarkozy and friends have certainly got plenty to worry about. But all hope is not lost for the right, especially if the economy picks up and the left fails to get its act together.

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