Socialists, FN gain in local elections

France's Socialist Party and the far-right National Front made significant gains in Sunday's local elections, exposing weaknesses in President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party. A French pollster explains the implications.


France’s opposition Socialist Party has scored a clear victory in local “cantonal” elections, winning 49.9% of the vote.

The second-round elections, to choose departmental councils (France has 101 departments), saw French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) come out with 35.9%.

In third place, the far-right National Front (FN) took home 11%. The FN’s score is significant as it only had candidates in a minority of departments, and in some of those it scooped more than one-third of the vote.

Eric Bonnet, chief analyst at French pollster BVA, explains the implications of a result which should worry Sarkozy ahead of next year’s presidential and legislative elections.

FRANCE 24: Recent polls put the FN’s Marine Le Pen ahead of Sarkozy in the first round of a presidential election. This time, FN got 11% (against 35.9% for the UMP). Did the FN do well or badly in this latest vote?

Eric Bonnet: It’s important to remember that this was a second round vote and the FN was not represented in all departments. But where they were represented, they got up to 40% of the vote. This is very significant.

Compared with the previous cantonal elections, the FN has gained by about 8%, while the ruling UMP has lost by about the same amount. The FN has very clearly come out in a much stronger position.

There are three reasons for this.

Firstly, people are concerned about the economy. And the more voters are unhappy about the economic situation, the more likely they are to want to punish the politicians. Voters often see that the most effective way of doing this is to choose a party which outside the established political order, hence voting for the FN.

Secondly, many French right wingers are disappointed with Sarkozy’s performance in office. These voters are unlikely to vote PS, so they either abstain or vote FN.

Thirdly, the FN is starting to be recognised as a normal, viable political party. It seems a lot less less frightening prospect to many voters. Much of this is could be down to Sarkozy implementing right wing policies [such as banning the “burqa” in public places and clamping down on illegal Gypsy camps] in an attempt to attract voters away from the FN. Doing this has made these very policies seem less extreme.

Add to this the fact that the FN has a new leader in Marine Le Pen, who is projecting a much softer image of her party than her father Jean-Marie ever did. People who may otherwise have baulked at voting FN often now don’t think it’s such a bad or dangerous thing to do.

FRANCE 24: French political parties are often punished in local elections. How badly has Sarkozy and his UMP party been bashed?

EB: Punishment votes like this do happen regularly in French regional elections - but the sanction against Sarkozy in this vote has been particularly strong. BVA has been polling and analysing French elections for 30 years and we have never seen anything like it.

It does not mean that Sarkozy cannot rebound. If he is able to reduce unemployment, if he can make a success of the G20 leadership and if everything turns out well in Libya for example, he could still win.

It’s important to put this into the context of the weakness of the main opposition PS, who are divided and don’t yet have a presidential candidate.

FRANCE 24: You say the Socialists are weak. Why is this, considering their success in these latest regional elections?

EB: The Socialists came out very well in these elections, but it is does not mean that they will be successful in next year’s presidential elections. From 2002 to 2007 they were equally strong locally, but they lost to Sarkozy in 2007.

In terms of the PS’s presidential prospects, there are two major areas of weakness.

Firstly, the party doesn’t have a presidential candidate yet. This is being put out to a US-style primary vote, in which all French citizens can participate.

These primaries have got to be a success for the PS to have any legitimacy. But the image of a fractured party squabbling over its leadership could still be extremely divisive.

Secondly, the PS still doesn’t have a clear programme for government and voters don’t like uncertainty.

Local elections are a good way to punish the ruling party, as the PS has done. But this is not enough to convince the people that they are ready to govern.

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