The French turn out in droves, the Eurosceptic Front National wins
Turnout is the main surprise of the vote, since at 43 % it is far higher than the 35 to 40 % predicted by the polls of the last few weeks, and 10 % higher than in 2009. It appears that France has one of the highest turnouts. First exit polls indicate that 59 % of voters cited European issues as their main criterion in deciding their vote, while 39 % mentioned national and government policies.
Polls taken in the last few weeks have indicated a loss of trust in the European Union – a loss of trust that applies mainly to its institutions, however: 54 % do not trust the European Parliament, 55 % do not trust the Commission. Yet 83 % of the French want a “united Europe”, and 59 % favour the monetary union and the euro. The three issues that they deem most important are (in order) immigration, buying power, and the eurocrisis. In an early commentary, Alain Juppé (from the main conservative party) said he “did not understand voters who want a European army but give their vote to the National Front, which does not want a European Union”.
The European election has been dominated by the domestic political debate, since it is held less than two months after the municipal elections, where the Socialist Party (PS), more than its allies, suffered a stunning defeat. But the main conservative party, the UMP, has also been struck with internal disputes among contenders for future leadership, and a financial scandal from its last campaign spending leaked to the press a few weeks ago.
Strikingly, the only truly European campaigning has been done by non-political figures, from business, the media, and some public intellectuals. They emphasize generally that politicians have always presented themselves as defenders of French interests and have usually blamed Brussels for most difficulties.
Three European issues have been present in the campaign: the debate against austerity, where the Socialists have campaigned for a lower euro and higher spending policies at the EU level; immigration where the National Front and part of the conservative camp want Schengen abolished or reformed. The third issue – “for” or “against” a “German model” has in fact been muted by the existence of a coalition government in Berlin, with the Socialists claiming their vote is for Martin Schulz and Nicolas Sarkozy’s last minute plea for a deeper Franco-German union getting little echo.
Traditional foreign policy issues – from Ukraine and Russia to Africa – have gone almost unmentioned.
Winners and Losers
The big winner is the National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen’s party. With a projected 25,1 % of the vote, it is the first ranked party in France. In two regions (East and South-east), it received more than 29%, and close to a third of the voters in the North-west. Only the West and the Paris region did the UMP garner more votes than the FN.
The biggest loser is the Socialist Party (PS, 14,3 %) and its allies, the Leftist Front incorporating the Communists (FG, 6,4 %) and the Europe Ecology party (EELG, 9 %). President Hollande’s “majority” has falled to 30 % of voters. The PS lost 2 percent and the EELG over 6 percent from 2009.
The only good news for Hollande and the PS is that the challenge form its left of left (FG) and the EELG did not pay off electorally.
The conservative UMP also saw a significant loss, coming in at 20,2%. However, this setback comes from its split with UDI-Modem, the pro-European center group, which got 10 % of the vote: allied in 2009, the two groups won 30% of voters.
Among the 31 other lists registered for these elections, only Debout la République (conservative anti-Europeans, 3,7 %) and Nouvelle Donne (socially progressive, asking for an exit from the euro although pro-European, 3%) have made any headway.
There are two species of Eurosceptics. The FN and the FG, from the far right and the radical left respectively, have focused their campaigns against Europe, which is used as a scapegoat. But the results show that this strategy has benefited the far right.
The second species is in fact inside more traditional parties. Only UDI-Modem, a core pro-Europe group, has really campaigned for Europe. A few individual politicians (including François Hollande with an isolated address, Nicolas Sarkozy’s last minute plea for a core Europe around the a deeper Franco-German Union, Alain Juppé and Bruno Le Maire) have really come out for the EU. Most of the conservatives campaigned for French interests in Europe, or for a tougher line on issues such as immigration. Two politicians – Alain Wauquiez and even more Henri Guaino – campaigned consistently against Europe.
Taken together, hard core Eurosceptics account for 35,3 % of the vote (FN + FG + Debout la République). To which one should add an unspecified percentage of soft Eurosceptics inside most other parties.
The PS’s electoral literature explicitly endorsed Martin Schulz, even citing it as a reason to vote for the PS, as a way to leverage Europe. This was never expressed directly by François Hollande or Manuel Valls.
These elections could be over-interpreted. The French have voted in higher numbers than most other Europeans. Very negative economic and social conditions (growth, debt, employment, taxes) have clearly impacted the results. The National Front’s stunning success is that of a party that rides on opposition to everything, and does not have a single item of structural reform in its platform.
As of tonight, one sees two trends inside what is still, within French institutions, a formal majority for the Socialists. Manuel Valls and a few others has emphasized the “earthquake” and come out strongly for reforms that would turn around the economy. Others, such as former PM Ayrault, are choosing to describe the vote as a warning to Europe.
The defeat of leftist groups in fact gives a freer hand to reformists inside the current majority. And the conservative right is deeply split between those who want to play a more rightist and populist line to reclaim voters from the FN, and those who want to campaign strongly within the European framework.
Read the views from the other European capitals here
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