It is no big surprise that the French Socialist party (PS) did not emerge triumphant from the departmental elections this weekend – few expected that it would. François Hollande is in the second half of his mandate, the French economy is causing sleepless nights for economists across Europe and beyond, and the country is still reeling with shock from the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris at the beginning of the year and concerned about the linked vexed questions of integration. In a sense, these departmental elections are like mid-term elections anywhere else: to some extent, they represent a plebiscite on what is going on right now, and they offer voters a chance to express their discontent with the status quo.
The PS is publicly putting on a brave face, arguing that it is resisting the threat from the Front National. But privately, Hollande must have choked on his coffee this morning as the results of the departmental elections came out. The PS has not placed in a quarter of consitutencies in this first round and has lost control of 500. This morning, the three leading parties were polling as follows: 36 percent for the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement-Union of Democrats and Independents (UMP-UDI); 28 percent for PS; and 25 percent for the Front National (FN).
Hollande is now faced with five disturbing realities:
1) The Front National has taken a strong third place on the leaderboard in these elections, and the smile on Marie Le Pen’s face could not be wider. This is undoubtedly a success for her and marks the moment at which – whether or not she was invited to march with the main parties in the Paris demonstrations in January – she and the FN have broken into the mainstream of French politics.
2) This is also a personal success for Nicolas Sarkozy, cementing the ground for his planned return at the head of UMP, the party he created. His people are still firmly insisting they want a success for the right for positive reasons, not for negative ones, and are ruling out any coalition with the FN. But things are looking bright for all parts of the right in France today.
3) The results represent a personal defeat for Hollande. His popularity as president hit rock bottom in 2014, but he did bounce back over his handling of the attacks on Paris at the beginning of 2015. Yet now, even the department of Correze has swung away from him. This department has always been something of a weather vane, but is particularly so this time round, since it is Hollande’s home territory. Significant political resources have been invested by all sides in trying to win it – Prime Minister Manuel Valls was speaking in Tulle last week, and Sarkozy is expected in Brive this coming week. The UMP-UDI polled 35 percent there (though with Bernadette Chirac included in their line-up, the aristocracy of Correzian politics were pitted against the PS). And although the PS were in second place with 31.5 percent (FN came in only third here), they are likely to have to negotiate with others on the left if they want to win back this department.
4) With just one week until the second round, the coming days will be about regrouping, restrategising, and realigning on all sides of the political spectrum. Sarkozy has suggested that, in the event of run-offs between PS and FN, UMP supporters should give their vote to neither. This point has split his party: Alain Juppe has come out publicly in favour of a block against the FN. These elections are about departmental government, but in France, a fair amount of power lies at that level – and with the current cross-party political drive for greater decentralisation, and a reframing of French departments planned, even more authority is set to be given to the departmental level. What happens next week matters for France.
5) These elections matter for Europe too. The rise of far right, anti-European, and anti-establishment parties in European Union member states has not happened overnight; it has been tracked by analysts for years. The Front National was an early part of this trend and its success in gaining seats in the European Parliament was a harbinger of the major victory for parties of this stripe in the EP elections of May 2014. What is new here is the ability to not only break into and then dominate the political debate in key EU states, but now also to translate that rhetorical strength into national political power. With UKIP set fair to be a very influential force in the United Kingdom’s general elections in May 2015, it is clear that in the big EU states, the rise of the far right is less a threat than a reality in European national politics.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.