France: president’s defeat, polity’s crisis

Nicolas Sarkozy’s buffeting and the left’s advance in regional elections are less important than France’s profound alienation from politics, says Patrice de Beer.
Patrice de Beer
13 April 2010

The party may already be over for the hyperactive French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, even after only three years in office. The rout of his Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle (UMP) in France’s two-round regional elections on 14 and 21 March 2010 is a devastating blow for a leader whose profile so much depends on an endless bubble of mediatised momentum. The result was the French right's worst since the founding of the fifth republic in 1958: its 35.4% of the vote compared with the 54.1% achieved by the left (led by the Parti Socialiste [PS] and the green Europe Ecologie), its own best score since 1981.

France's regional political map is now coloured red, with but a tiny blue dot (for Alsace) in its northeast corner. All but one of the country’s twenty-two metropolitan regions voted for la gauche solidaire (one more than in 2004), and ninety-one of the ninety-seven metropolitan départements (including even the president's Hauts-de-Seine, the crucible of French conservatism). It was indeed what a “Sarko” ally called a “political tsunami”.

Yet the rearrangement of France’s political furniture - and perhaps the prospects for the next presidential election in 2012 - is also an episode in the society’s retreat from engagement with politics. Beyond the clear evidence of Sarkozy’s political failure and the left’s (albeit qualified) victory, the deeper lesson of spring 2010 is that France remains a blocked, worried and directionless country (see “France’s lost and found ideals”, 13 May 2009).

A project in retreat

France’s president has lost more than his magic touch. His political credibility also vanished when he reversed course on a proposed carbon-tax. This was a measure that in September 2009 he had described as being on the same historic level of importance as abolishing the death penalty or ending colonialism; yet it was discarded for the crudest electoral reasons: that it alienated the political right and the business sector (including his own UMP) while failing to attract green voters.

Sarkozy’s response to his troubles is to concentrate on the politically risky project of pension-reform. As ever the current priority - whatever it happens to be - is urgent: he wants the draft bill ready by early July 2010 and promises real negotiations with both unions and business, though his labour minister insists when meeting these interest-groups  that he is talking not negotiating.

Sarkozy’s image is so dented that he now looks like a kind of Bernard Madoff of French politics: a man who promised so much to so many without the means and/or the will to deliver, and who paid his latest tarnished promises by issuing new ones (see “Sarkozy’s Popularity Slides Further in France”, Angus Reid Global Monitor, 9 April 2010).

What can he do now to turn the tide? The primary tasks are to reassure his own camp and calm UMP parliamentarians' fear of losing their seats in 2012; then to show some indication of listening to voters’ anger (even if this involves no change in his policies).

So far there is no indication that the president or his ministers recognise reality. The official mantra is that voters still want “reforms”; the UMP secretary-general even says that Sarkozy's strategy had been vindicated by two electoral victories in overseas départements. The aura of Pyongyang-like denial is unmistakable; the only internal criticism is anonymous and coded. 

Even worse, Sarkozy’s tendency to flirt with the darker instincts of xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric to attract Front National voters - so effective in 2007 that many thought it had all but killed the far-right movement - have had the opposite effect. Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter (and heir-apparent) Marine are again taking crucial votes from the UMP, though the far-right patriarch is retiring from the FN leadership in January 2011 and will not contest the next presidential election.

There are further problems. The president’s own political base is in disarray. Some of his rivals on the right - such as former prime ministers Alain Juppéand Dominique de Villepin - have not excluded the possibility of running for the presidency in 2012. Many voters loathe the sight of their president cavorting with tycoons and celebrities in glitzy surroundings while they survive on meagre incomes.

The French are tired of living with the the president's inability to turn words into deeds. His pledge to reward those who working harder has dissolved; his promise to fight outsourcing and keep factories open has come to little; his education and health reforms, which involve great job-losses among nurses and teachers, have proved unsustainable; his labour-market policies have seen unemployment rise to 3.8 million, with widespread insecurity among the middle-classes also; and his hardline stance and frenetic legislation on public security (including illegal immigration) leave citizens feeling more vulnerable than ever (see “Sarkozyland: France's inward politics”, 16 June 2009).

A party divided

Nicolas Sarkozy’s consolation is that his political opponents’ momentum is far  from assured. The PS is skilled at self-harm, and has form in turning electoral triumph into later defeat (as when its victory in the regional elections of 2004 was followed by the defeat of Ségolène Royal in the presidential race of 2007). 

The chief beneficiary of the PS’s latest win is the party leader Martine Aubry - the mayor of Lille in northern France, and daughter of Jacques Delors - who as a result will almost certainly be the left’s main candidate for the Elysee in 2012. Yet her hegemony within the party is in doubt; she won the leadership only narrowly after a bitter internecine fight with Ségolène, and even before she went on air to claim victory on 21 March 2010 at least three of her rivals had already spoken.

The PS needs to reconcile its factions as well as its personalities. It is divided between a Paris leadership itself torn by enmities and regional barons proud of their ability to deliver votes. To win in 2012 the party needs to establish internal unity, gather behind a credible candidate and platform, and strike a deal with Europe Ecologie (which is advancing at the expense of the traditional left) - tasks that at present look beyond it (see “France’s socialist crack-up”, 17 December 2008).

A democracy in crisis

The fact that the PS even in the moment of its electoral recovery is suffering from its own malaise highlights the broader lesson of the elections: that a majority of French people now feel indifference or even contempt towards politics and politicians. This alienation can be measured in the historically low turnouts: 46.4% in the first round and 51.1% in the second.

The real situation is worse even than it seems. The sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie comments that “people don't feel part of the society. They feel they have no political existence. It is a long-term tendency, [apparent] in the ghettoisation of the banlieues”. The political scientist Jean-Yves Dormagen adds that “abstention is not a protest, it goes deeper: the political game is deeply alien to [many people]”.

Indeed, in the banlieues - where a high percentage of people of African or Arab origin live - the abstention-rate often reaches 70%; in the estate of Les Mureaux, west of Paris, it was an abysmal 11.8%. In addition, as many as 25% of citizens in some areas don't even bother to register on the electoral roll. This larger landscape puts the election results into perspective; for example, the popular Mali-born PS candidate in Val d'Oise, Ali Soumaré, obtained 57.4% of the votes, and  71.8% in his own city of Villiers-le-Bel - but the latter score still represents only 15% of those eligible to vote.

This is a crisis of democracy itself. A political community where so many citizens are effectively disenfranchised cannot progress. Yet the profusion of elections does not help: France is a country in permanent electoral mode, where elections almost every year mean that short-termism dominates and the ballot-box offers no voice to the politically excluded. The game of “right” and “left” matters little to them; official politics even less. This scale of disaffection is one that France’s elite seems unable to address or resolve.

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