France: Poll a tale of missed left gains

A comparison between the Left Front and National Front votes in the first round of France's local elections on March 23. Graphic
Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mainstream media coverage of the first round of France's March 23 local elections stressed the rise in support for the far-right, racist National Front (FN).

The only other stories found worthy of comment were the sharp decline in support for the ruling Socialist Party (PS) of president Francois Hollande and the rise in abstention to a record 36.5%.

There is a distinct lack of interest in the vote to the left of the PS, which in the 2012 presidential election was overwhelmingly concentrated in the 11.1% support for Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. This is partly due to the complicated “variable geometry” with which the left to stood in this election.

This dispersion was provoked by the decision of the French Communist Party (PCF), a major part of the Left Front, to allow its local branches to decide whether to run in alliance with the PS.

In Paris, the PCF local group, pressed by national secretary Pierre Laurent, voted by a narrow majority to join the PS ticket. As a result, there was a separate Left Front campaign. The lead candidate was Danielle Simonnet from the Left Party, the other main group in the Left Front.

Simonnet's list won 5% of the vote across the 20 wards of central Paris, with a high point of 10.4% in the working-class 20th ward. The PS ticket won 33.6% and the mainstream right-wing list won 34.8%. The Green ticket won 8.4%.

In some other cities and towns where the local PCF ran with the PS, the Left Party succeeded in creating united tickets with local Green branches, sometimes involving smaller Left Front affiliates. Elsewhere, it ran with other Left Front affiliates such as Ensemble (Together), the far left New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and/or local independents.

All these variables contributed to the mainstream media’s indifference to the left-of-PS vote. Digging out the level of support for the anti-government left took a degree of effort for which the commercial media had neither motive nor energy.

PS collapse

The main feature of the poll was growing disillusionment with France’s mainstream political forces. This touched not just the PS but the main conservative opposition, the Union for a People’s Movement (UMP). The main winners were the FN and abstention, which was highest in working-class and poor communities.

If these trends hold for the second round on March 30, the PS, which tried in vain to confine the election to local issues, could lose control of several important cities.

The PS will probably hold Paris, Lyon, Lille and Limoges, but by greatly reduced margins and with the support of left tickets withdrawing after the first round. This will be the only way the 12 government ministers standing to renew their local power bases are reconfirmed as mayors.

The longstanding pattern of registering a protest vote against incumbent national governments at council polls has reached a new high. The ruling PS experienced its heaviest local election loss in 40 years.

In several large towns (including Orleans, Limoges and Roubaix), the PS vote fell by more than 20%. In 14 others, by between 10% and 20%. A Le Monde analysis found that in the second round, the PS faces losing 90 towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants.

The only factor that could prevent that disaster would be remobilising frightened left voters who abstained in the first round.

Three examples dramatise the PS’s plight. After 60 years of PS rule, the town of Niort looks like falling to the right; in working-class Marseille, where abstention exceeded 50% in some wards, the PS candidate came in third with 20%, behind the UMP and FN; and in Commentry dans l’Allier, which elected France’s first socialist mayor in 1882, the PS came third (16.2%), behind the right (47.1%) and an independent left list including the PCF and supported by the Left Party (25.7%)

Rise of the National Front

The rise of the FN was symbolised by its winning an absolute majority in the north-western working-class town of Henin-Beaumont. It won it straight from the PS.

Elsewhere, the FN won a record number of relative majorities, including in big cities like Avignon (30.4%), Perpignan (34.2%) and Beziers (44.9%). In the second round, it has a chance of winning between 10 and 15 towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants.

The FN has strengthened its support base in the regions along the Mediterranean coast and in working-class communities devastated by industry closure, like the Moselle mining basin and former PCF stronghold Lille.

The gains of the FN also cut the advance of mainstream right party UMP. Where the UMP did not face opposition on its right flank, it could grow at the expense of the PS (13% in Nanterre and 10% in Rennes). However, with the FN running, the spoils overwhelmingly went to the FN, with the UMP making feeble gains or even outright losses.

The lesson was that the UMP’s pale imitation of the FN’s isolationist xenophobia simply encouraged the voter drawn to this “explanation” of poverty and social decline to vote for its original author, not the plagiarist.

Left opposition

The FN’s results would not have seemed as dramatic if the anti-government left ― centred on the Left Front but including other forces ― had managed a united campaign.

As it was, the result for independent left lists was much better than mainstream media silence, combined with huge airtime for the FN, might seem to indicate. In many centres, this result was on a par with the shift to the FN.

In its analysis of the result, the Left Party noted that the 600 independent left tickets won 11.43% of the vote. When these tickets included the Greens (in 82 lists), that average rose to 15.3%.

There were 308 such tickets that passed the 10% barrier to participate in the second round, compared with 316 of the FN’s 594 tickets. They won 2036 councilor positions, as opposed to 473 for the FN.

Particularly noteworthy was the success of tickets involving the Greens. This was led by the campaign in the alpine city of Grenoble, where a Greens-Left Party-Ensemble alliance scored 29% as against the PS-PCF’s 25%.

This result bettered the 15% vote for the Greens alone in the 2008 poll. In 25 centres where this coalition ran, it won more than 15%.

The Left Party’s Elisa Martin, number two on the list, said of the Grenoble result: “Everything we have said about the need to reinvent the left is on the way to being embodied in this result. Our result is important for the left and, I would say, even for France.”

Grenoble will now have a four-way battle to the death in the second round, with local PS MP Olivier Veran setting the tone with this comment on the winners of the first round: “This improbable melange will be dangerous for Grenoble’s ecosystem.”

PS kiss of death

What was the result for those cities and towns where the PCF hitched themselves to the PS wagon? When asked at a post-election press conference if he regretted this choice, Laurent commented: “We avoided any penalty. There’s a lot of talk about the one mayoralty won on Sunday by the FN. Yet 37 communist mayors were elected on Sunday night and nobody talks about that …

“What is strikingly fair about this result is that the punishment handed out to the left is not blind, because it is where we implement effective municipal policies, either with teams led directly by communists or at times even with socialist mayors, that there are results that run against the general punishment.”

It is true that PCF support generally held up, and that its 1800-odd council positions will probably be maintained with some exceptions. But this clearly looks to have been at the cost of strengthening a united political force that could contest the FN advance and fight the growing mood of disgust with politics per se.

Nor did the PCF vote always hold up. In a town like Perpignan, where the party has never had a chance to show how it might makes a difference to local government, the decision to maintain unity with the PS resulted in the PS-PCF vote falling from 24% to 11%.

After the poll, a PCF militant captured the response of many PCF rank-and-file members with this response to his party’s declaration: “Don’t you see who’s voting for the FN? Today, it’s a lot of former left voters, of people in a miserable situation who see no hope in a PS that scorns them nor in the PCF when it seems to be an extension of that PS.

“How can we ally ourselves to a party that supports a president who has stated that the loss of the working class electorate matters little to him and that communists don’t exist?”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal after the March 30 second round of the French council elections.]