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France

Blue at the centre, pink elsewhere: explaining France’s political landscape

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2010-02-17

France’s Socialist Party swept the country’s regional elections in 2004 and looks set to do the same this time around. But the party can't seem to get it right in national elections. French politics expert Stéphane Rozès explains why.

France has been governed by right-wing presidents ever since 1995, but most of its towns, departments and regions are ruled by the left. Since 2004, the Socialist Party has been in control of all but two of the 22 regions that make up metropolitan France. Recent polls suggest it may even add to that tally in forthcoming regional elections, to be held on March 14 and 21.

According to Stéphane Rozès, a political analyst and head of Paris-based consulting firm “Conseils, Analyses et Perspectives (CAP)”, this division of power is hardly surprising. In a country with “left-leaning aspirations”, he says, the Socialist Party is better placed to address local needs, even as it remains ill-suited to the French presidential system.

 

FRANCE 24: The right appears to be heading for another heavy defeat in next month’s regional elections, despite its firm grip on central power. How can we explain this territorial division of power in France?

Stéphane Rozès: The election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 was a victory for the “Bonapartist” tradition – that of a leader who is able to resolve the country’s contradictions and capture the nation’s imagination, much like Napoleon. The Socialists, on the other hand, are still uncomfortable with the institutional framework of the Fifth Republic. Their failure to take power nationally has less to do with poor policies than with their inability to embody a certain idea of the nation. Ségolène Royal was able to do this at first, but then she failed to come up with a political platform.

F24: Do you not think that recent presidential and parliamentary elections point to voter rejection of the left’s national policies?

S.R: France leans to the left in terms of its aspirations, and to the right in terms of what it deems feasible. When it comes to national politics, the left seems to suffer from a credibility gap, which is largely of its own making. The Socialists in particular tend to outsource to Europe the issues they feel they can no longer take on nationally. This has two pernicious effects. It gives the impression of a powerless nation state, and it leads to a gap between the Europe voters hope for – the so-called “social Europe” – and the reality of the EU. The second effect in turn explains the Socialists’ poor showing in last year’s European elections.

F24: So how do we explain the left’s takeover of French regions?

S.R: The Socialists’ credibility gap at a national level does not apply to local politics. They are better placed than the right to match local aspirations with concrete policies, particularly in terms of public services. But the danger for them is that they end up feeling too comfortable in their local fiefdoms, whereas the Elysée [France’s presidential palace] remains the real prize in French politics. The Socialist Party has to make a choice: it can either sort out its internal problems, or transform itself into a party of regional barons.

F24: Will this form of power-sharing lead to gridlock in relations between the central power and the periphery?

S.R: This distribution of power does not really alter the relationship between the national government and the regions. The recentralisation currently underway is very much in line with President Sarkozy’s personal ideas. It would have gone ahead even if the regions had been administered by the right. At the same time, the state’s retreat from public service provision is bound to continue. More and more, the central government leaves local authorities with the task of handling the growing gap between dwindling resources and a sustained demand for services - which of course plays into the hands of the left in local elections.

 

Date created : 2010-02-16

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