Heavy losses in regional elections leave France's Socialists with tactical dilemma
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French President François Hollande’s ruling Socialist party suffered a heavy defeat in the first round of the country’s regional elections Sunday, leaving them with tough tactical decisions after voters flocked to the far-right National Front (FN).
Hollande’s party must now decide whether or not to back former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains (formerly known as the UMP) in the next round on December 13 in order to try to keep the FN out of power.
Sarkozy has already ruled out any possibility of his party withdrawing to prevent FN success in the next round.
The Socialist Party, which took 21 of the 22 regions of metropolitan France in 2010’s regional elections, polled just 22.7 percent of the vote nationwide on Sunday, according to an Ifop-Fiducial exit poll.
That put it behind both the FN's 30.6 percent and the 27 percent gained by centre-right Les Républicains and their allies.
The country’s internal borders have been redrawn since the last regional elections, with now just 13 regions making up metropolitan France. By the time polls closed on Sunday evening, the Socialists were ranked first in just three regions, a France 2 exit poll said.
With no party set to gain an absolute majority in any of the regions, a second round of voting will now be held, contested by all parties that scored 10 percent of votes or more on Sunday.
In regions where the Socialists find themselves in third place, they may choose to back out of the second round and call on their voters to back Les Républicains on December 13. However this option is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth for many of the left-wing party’s supporters.
The Socialists would also lose the chance of gaining any seats at all in any regions where they decide not to contest the vote.
Sarkozy: No possibility of an alliance
The Socialist party's top officials were meeting on Sunday night but have until Tuesday to make their decision known.
Another option would be for Socialist candidates to run on a joint ticket with Les Républicains. But Sarkozy reiterated that this would not be an option for his party, in a speech following the vote Sunday evening.
Instead, politicians needed to listen to the message voters were sending by abandoning the two main parties, Sarkozy said.
“The verdict of the French voters is clear. It is a message we need to listen to,” he said.
“It is a new sign of a profound aspiration of the French people to see things change in this country. They clearly signalled their profound exasperation.”
He also vowed that his party would not be backing out in any region in the second round, despite the risk of boosting percentages for the FN.
That decision could see Marine Le Pen’s far-right anti-immigration FN capitalise on what has already been a historic election for them when next week’s second round arrives.
The FN polled first in at least six regions according to exit polls, and looks set to win control of a French region for the first time in the party’s history.
The party’s surge in support will also be a worry to Sarkozy and Hollande in the run-up to 2017’s presidential race, for which Le Pen looks increasingly like a formidable challenger.
Low point for Hollande
For Hollande, Sunday’s vote was a low point in what has been a turbulent presidency from almost the day he took power in 2012, with his approval ratings consistently low.
The French president did see an improvement in his ratings thanks to his handling of last month’s terror attacks in Paris. But the events of November 13 also served to boost the FN, with Le Pen’s linking of the attacks to France’s immigration policy striking a chord with many voters.
However, Socialist senator Hélène Conway-Mouret told FRANCE 24 that her party can expect to improve its score in the second round by taking votes from smaller leftist and green parties.
“This is the first round. One has to remember that the FN may be ahead because they have gathered all the votes they can get,” she said.
“But there is a second round and they have no reserves. In the next few hours there will be lots of discussions and certainly the Socialist Party will be talking to its allies.”
Meanwhile, for Sarkozy’s Les Républicains, Sunday’s vote was also something of a disappointment, with the recently rebranded party failing to capitalise on the Socialists’s drop in support.
Despite polling higher nationally, Les Républicains were top in just three regions, the same amount as the Socialists, according to the France 2 exit poll.
That will come as a personal blow to Sarkozy, who had been hoping for a strong showing to help secure his nomination as the Les Républicains candidate for the 2017 presidential vote.