Can Europe Make It?

French local elections on suburban housing estates

It is, in a sense, a good sign for racial integration to see that the “new French” are voting just like the old ones.

Patrice de Beer
2 April 2014
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Socialists struggle to keep in power in municipal elections in France. Demotix/Amit Mendelsohn. All rights reserved.For decades French mid-term local elections have seen the defeat of the government – and president – in place. Like for Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. This time, municipal elections held on March 23 and 30 have been even more devastating for President François Hollande, his government and the Socialist Party (PS), for long in control of the majority of cities and regions.

And it is not only the president's aloofness or his unwillingness, or inability, to communicate with voters – in particular with his own left – but also the very political system on which the PS had long based its power, which has been savaged.

Government parties have lost votes, and cities, almost everywhere, except for Paris, which remains solidly pink, under its first female mayor, Spanish born Anne Hidalgo. The PS has been ousted from 48 cities of over 30,000 inhabitants and the right will rule 147 city halls – a gain of 48 – while the PS and its allies are left with only 55.

In some places, official PS candidates have been ousted by other leftists or, even worse, by socialist candidates who have split from the PS, a clear rejection of Hollande's politics. The National Front (FN) has gained ten cities, from the left as well as from the right, both often divided by internal feuds. But they remain, for now, a secondary force at local level. A ‘Blue Wave’, no question, even if the Socialists have only lost one of the major cities they controlled, Toulouse.

Under the French presidential system, the Prime Minister is the usual scapegoat. So, no surprise that Hollande announced on television on Monday evening that he was replacing his faithful ally, Jean-Marc Eyrault, with his Home Minister Manuel Valls. The most popular Socialist politician (60% in opinion polls vs a meagre 20% for the President) has been asked to form a new, slimlined, “fighting” cabinet to jointly reform the economy to create new jobs and to lead a social policy through tax rebates. To please business and voters alike.

France is now paying the price of a disappointing lack of leadership and vision – or its incapacity to express and defend such a vision publicly – from a man who seems to have forgotten that he was not elected as a first choice in 2012 but because many voters wanted Sarkozy out, having tired of his hyperactivity, of the difference between his wildly publicised promises and reality, or of his closeness to financial “affaires” under investigation by the courts. The French political – but also social, economic and institutional -  system is running out of steam.

If Hollande cannot be held responsible for ten years of conservative government which have left soaring debts and deficits as well as an industry in decay - he certainly is for not having taken the measure of the crisis and of the emergency, relying mostly on his favourite style of short-term compromises to satisfy the largest number possible. And the more profound measures he has taken – some quasi-revolutionary in a country torn by social confrontation -  like asking unions and business to negotiate together on unemployment, pensions or on economic recovery – are taking far too much time when the house is already on fire.

It is fair game for the UMP to gloat about this “tsunami”. But this seems due more to demobilised PS voters switching votes or deserting polling booths (explaining a percentage fall of 7 points to 43.8% of the votes compared with 2008 and a record abstention rate of 36.3%) than to the mobilisation of UMP voters, which fell from 45.9 to 45.3%.

For most French people, the two main parties remain too much of a muchness: too remote from their daily problems, leaderless and more preoccupied by personal rivalries than by drafting a convincing platform to drive France out of economic and moral recession. Jean-François Copé, the UMP leader criticised in his own camp, has, in some opinion polls, a satisfaction rate of around 2%. And the rat race opposing UMP stalwarts hoping to succeed Sarkozy for the 2017 presidential election has helped to popularise FN leader, Ms. Marine Le Pen's main slogan against what she calls the “UMPS”, i.e. mainstream politicians.

The FN has been gloating over political scandals which regularly shake the PS and the UMP alike. Last year, budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was forced to resign after having lied about his Swiss bank account. Now Sarkozy is accused of having received money from Gaddafi and of being involved in the illegal financing of his former mentor Edouard Balladur's presidential campaign in 1994, as well as in other breaches. Not to forget Hollande's private life today, so very like Sarko's yesterday.

The problem is that the French are not looking at this or that affair as an UMP or a PS infelicity but as evidence of a corrupt political world, even if, as usual, only a tiny minority is involved in either camp. More than ever they repeat the French political mantra, “The more things change, the more they remain the same!”

All this plays into the hands of the FN alone, as the extreme left remains divided, with its self-proclaimed leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, disappointed by his lagging popularity, now thinking out loud about retiring from politics. The FN is also banking on anti-European sentiment and might well come out first in next May's European elections. Which would be another political earthquake.

So, what's next? Hollande has three years to fulfil his promises of reforms, economic to Brussels and social to the French. To blend social promises, and help business – the only sector capable of creating jobs, he said in a very social democratic, even Blairite style – while cutting 50 billions euros from the French budget and streamlining the bloated institutional “millefeuille”. A task even Sarkozy failed to achieve. This won't be easy, due to the magnitude of the task. Choosing a popular figure as PM is a smart move, but it also carries a risk, as ambitious Valls has never hidden that his final goal was to be the next President.

Born in Barcelona to a Catalan painter exiled in Paris, Valls is the leading figure of the PS right. He made himself a name on the back of a tough law and order policy – also close to Tony Blair's “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” - a topic many Socialists still don't want to hear about. He is disliked by the party's left – especially for his anti-immigrant and anti-Roma policy – and by the Greens, who see in him a “Sarkozy bis” and whose outgoing ministers have said they would not stay in a Valls cabinet. A cabinet, that is, which has been asked to toe the line and stop the internal bickering which poisoned Eyrault's team.

But his ambition, as well as the tough exterior in contrast to Hollande's art of compromise, might lead to clashes, this time at the summit. This does not sound like too good a prospect for a united team, even if both men are social democrats and pragmatists more than they are ideologists. Some even worry about the risk to a new “cohabitation”, this time within the left. Specially as French Presidents are not known for sharing power with their Prime Ministers. Will the two men become complementary or rivals?

But, at the same time, Hollande has concluded that he had no other choice and he is banking on his new right hand man's energy. Energy to put back to work the Augean stables which the PS has become, torn between conflicting “streams” and ambitions and unable to speak with one voice and to work together. Energy to unite a cabinet drafted from all streams and parties of the present coalition. And energy to communicate with the French – something on which Hollande has failed – and to convince them that things could change at least, that things are changing. Yet how much of a free hand will Hollande leave to Valls?

Too swayed by the traditional socialist tactics of making deals between different cliques, Hollande appeared in his Monday speech as not having understood that the situation had dramatically changed and that a change of Prime Minister, even Valls, might not suffice. He didn’t see that perhaps he could himself be part of the problem.

The new team will face three major challenges. The first is that the crisis has reached such a climax that political measures are not adequate any more. Hard decisions not only have to be taken, but decisively and quickly implemented, explained to the nation clearly, and a goal fixed, which is the opposite of the Hollande way. And his last speech has mostly been repeating his social democratic line but in a martial tone, whereas what people expect is a more Churchillian, “Blood, sweat and tears”.

The second is that the PS is in tatters. A loose coalition of rival streams built on local fiefdoms, “socialisme municipal” is dying: many cities have been lost, which means that the Senate could be lost as soon as next autumn. It might be the same with regions next year. Cities have been lost by politicians too long entrenched in their local fiefdom, unable to groom a successor – unlike former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë with Anne Hidalgo – and to see that the world has moved on – people who have been unexpectedly ousted by centre and right candidates, sometimes very young and with hardly any experience, by voters who wanted new blood.

Some have been lost through internecine feuds where enemies preferred seeing their local rivals defeated to their own victory. As well as by party comrades, tired of seeing the old guard monopolise power, who decided to stand against them, and won. Will Valls be strong – and diplomatic – enough to put his own house in order?

Finally, the left always took it for granted that the immigrant vote would side with them. But, for the first time, many crossed the line and voted UMP or, in a small number, FN. It is, in a sense, a good sign for racial integration to see that the “new French” are voting just like the old ones. Will Valls's law and order style be able to win back this crucial part of the vote, especially in those suburban housing estates?

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