France: Elections a blow to Sarkozy

Issue 

French voters have a blow to right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first and second rounds of voting in the French regional elections. The opposition Socialist Party (PS) expanded its control of regional presidencies to 23 of the 26 regions, based on a record voting percentage in the second round on March 21. There were mixed results for parties to the left of the PS, and also a resurgence of the far-right National Front (FN). The elections have been marred by record-low voter turnout, with 46.5% and 51% of voters taking part in the two rounds.

During the election campaign, Sarkozy told his right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP): "It's necessary to campaign on my record." This helped turn the regional elections into a referendum on his government's policies since being elected in 2007. The UMP-dominated Presidential Majority Lists received an average vote of 26.9%, down from 27.8% in the European elections and 33.73% in the last regional elections. As a result, the UMP lost control of Corsica and only managed to retain the conservative stronghold Alsace.

Far from giving him the ringing endorsement he wanted, the result is a rebuff to Sarkozy's neoliberal agenda. The PS vote achieved 29.48% in the first voting round on March 14. This was up markedly from the European elections, where it scored only 16.48%, but down from its score of 36.86% in the previous regional elections, when it ran on a ticket that included the French Communist Party (PCF). In the second round, the PS established the Union of the Left lists. This included Europe Ecologie, which had experienced a major growth in support from 2.25-12.8%, and the Left Front.

The Left Front is an electoral alliance mainly involving the PCF and the Left Party (PG — formed by former PS members in 2008). The UdG achieved a national vote of 54.3%. In Reunion, a French Indian Ocean colony where the Communist Party of Reunion received the highest vote in the first round, the PS stood its own candidate in the second. This allowed the Presidential Majority List to win the region. The PS was a relative strengthening of its position in the regions, and also a realignment of the forces to its left. Europe Ecologie has replaced the PCF as the PS' key electoral ally.

Far-right resurgence

The election also signalled the resurgence of the far-right FN. It was a significant force in French politics during the 1990s and in the early part of the past decade. FN leader Jean Marie Le Pen won 16.86%, the second-highest vote, in the 2002 presidential election. However, the party's star appeared to be waning. Its vote dropped to 6.3% in the 2009 European elections. In the regional elections, the FN won an average of 12%.

In the second round, the FN averaged 8.7%. However, it only ran candidates in half the regions — in the seats it contested it averaged 17.5%. The resurgence of the FN has been put down not only to the dissatisfaction of UMP working-class voters, angry at Sarkozy's failure to deliver on his promise of prosperity, but more importantly his focus in the lead-up and during the election on opening up a debate on national culture, which is said to have created a space for FN's racist politics. Parties to the left of the PS had a mixed result. This has much to do with realignment processes occurring since 2007.

The three main left parties — the Left Party (PdG), PCF and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) — stood independent candidates and united slates. In most regions, the PG and PCF stood joint lists as the Left Front, which the NPA had been under pressure to participate in. The NPA was launched in 2009 to unite anti-capitalist activists into a political vehicle in clear opposition to capitalist parties. Its leading spokesperson, Olivier Besancenot, is one of France's most popular politicians with a 2008 opinion poll giving him a higher approval rating than any PS leaders. The NPA has argued for an electoral and political alliance of the left based on a principled refusal to take part in or support pro-capitalist PS governments.

The PCF and the PG remain open to such participation. In the European elections, the NPA lists failed to elect any candidates. When the PG won two seats, the NPA's position was criticised from inside and outside the party. At its congress in December, the NPA had an intense but inconclusive debate on its electoral strategy. The final decision was to leave decisions about alliances to its regional committees. In three regions, the NPA agreed to take part in the Left Front. In three of the five regions in which the PCF did not take part in a Left Front list, the NPA joined with the PG to form a joint list. In a further 11 regions, the NPA took part in joint lists with other smaller left currents.

The Left Front achieved the highest average vote of the left with 5.84% nationally — down from 6% in the European elections. This vote rose to 14.24% in Auvergne. In Limousin, the joint Left Front list achieved 13.3%. In the one region where the Left Front qualified to stand its own list in the second round, it scored 19.1%. NPA candidates achieved an average national vote of 3.4%, down from their vote of 4.9% in the European elections. The low voter turnout was a factor — abstention was especially high among young voters who are most likely to support the NPA, voted. The NPA's decision to include Ilham Moussaid, an active feminist and Muslim who wears a hijab, on its Avignon list meant the NPA was criticised by the right-wing media. But it was also criticised by the PG, PCF and PS.

All three parties said they would never stand a candidate that wore a hijab. The NPA has been attacked as sectarian for refusing to take part in the left front, and this also affected its vote. The impact of the regional elections on French politics is unclear. On March 14, an NPA executive committee statement said the growth in support for the PS and Europe Ecologie had been "fuelled [by] rejection of the Right and Sarkozy in government ... who have made the majority of the population pay the cost of the crisis and who are destroying public services and social gains".

The statement noted that PS majorities at the regional level had not been a defence against Sarkozy. The election results will continue to increase pressure on the NPA to participate in the Left Front in the 2012 presidential and national elections. However, with more than 100 representatives in PS-controlled regional executives, the coming period will also be a test for the PG and PCF over whether they will support PS's neoliberal policies. In the wake of the elections, Sarkozy has announced he will slow the pace of his reform agenda. However, he is continuing his attacks on pensions – this looms as an immediate and major test for the left.