The results of the first round of the French presidential elections on April 22 shone a powerful spotlight on a society polarised by economic crisis and the austerity regime of president Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling Union for a Popular Movement government.
As in the 2002 presidential poll, candidates to the left of the Socialist Party, including Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV), won more than 15% combined. The far-right National Front (National Front) of Marine Le Pen registered its highest vote ever ― 17.9% (up 7.5% from the 2007 presidential poll).
However, unlike the 2002 contest, this time the far left vote did not come at the expense of the Socialist Party (which in 2002 was beaten into third place by the National Front). On April 22, the Socialist Party’s François Hollande took first place, with 28.6% of the vote (up 2.8% from 2007).
Support for Sarkozy fell by 4% to 27.2%, making him the first incumbent president not to lead in the first round since the Fifth Republic first presidential poll in 1965. The loss of votes largely came from National Front supporters Sarkozy had seduced in the 2007 presidential contest.
However, this loss was partially offset by desertions from Francois Bayrou, of the centrist Movement for Democracy.
Bayrou was the biggest loser on April 22. As 3.5 million voters deserted to the left and right, Bayrou’s support more than halved (from 18.6% to 9.1%).
For the Socialist Party, some of those votes helped counteract its own losses to the Left Front (Left Front) of Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11.1%.
Former education minister Bayrou offered a five point plan: urgent action to cut budget deficits (including acceptance of draconian European Union fiscal rules); “back-to-basics” education reform; “strong development” of France’s productive apparatus; morality in public life; and electoral reform.
It proved a lead balloon with an angry and disillusioned electorate.
In the midst of a recession, with nearly 4 million people unemployed or underemployed, why vote for someone who would cut back public services more than Sarkozy?
The polarisation revealed by the election has a clear left tilt. In 2007, the entire vote for right candidates (including Bayrou) was 23.3 million. In this poll the, right vote has fallen to 19.6 million, 16% less.
In 2007, the total left vote (including Socialist Party and Green candidates) was 13.4 million. This year, it is 15.7 million, 17% more.
As for the vote to the left of the Socialist Party and EELV, in 2007 these candidates received 3.3 million votes. This time their vote has risen to 4.6 million, a 39% increase.
Left Front vote
As the middle ground shrank, the biggest percentage gain went to Jean-Luc Melenchon. The Left Front vote was the highest for a candidate to the left of the Socialist Party since 1981, when George Marchais of the French Communist Party (Communist Party) won 15.4%.
The Left Front was also responsible for three-quarters of the rise in the total left vote, with the Socialist Party even losing ground in some areas.
The Left Front vote was 9.2% greater than that for the Communist Party in 2007 (1.9%). It also attracted voters who had supported Trotskyist candidates in 2007 (this time down 4%) as well as many traditional Socialist Party voters ― including former Communist Party supporters who had become Socialist Party voters over the years.
The Left Front’s gains were evenly spread across the country. Highest support came in the greater Paris “red belt” department (French administrative district) of Seine-Saint Denis (17%).
Other high points were Val-de-Marne (14%), also in the Paris outer suburbs, the Pyrenean departments of Ariege (16.9%) and Hautes-Pyrenees (15.2), Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (15.2%) and Hautes-Alpes (14%), and the central departments of Haute-Vienne (14.4%), Lot (14.4%) and Puy-de-Dôme (14%).
Some of these electorates cover rural areas with radical traditions going back to the Resistance during World War II.
The Left Front scored more than 10% in 70, and more 13% in 20, of France’s 101 departments. It also scored well in big towns without a strong Communist Party tradition, reaching over 15% in Grenoble, Toulouse, Lille, Besancon and Montpellier.
Melenchon also came in third in half of the France’s 20 biggest cities (with populations over 140,000).
However, the Left Front vote also turned out to be at the lower end of opinion poll predictions (between 11% and 17% over the final month of the campaign).
This reflected the success of a concerted Socialist Party campaign for a “useful” vote on the left, a frenzied operation in which the “nightmare” of 2002 (when the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin failed to reach the second round) played the key role.
An IFOP opinion poll showed 30% of those who eventually voted Socialist Party had wondered whether to vote Left Front before finally deciding for Hollande. If the Left Front had convinced all these voters to support it the party’s score would have reached 19.7%.
Compared with the Left Front, the pickings for the other left candidates, Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-capitalist Party and Natalie Arthaud of Workers' Struggle, were thin ― 1.4 million votes less than equivalent candidates in 2007.
National Front vote
The next biggest winner on April 22 was the National Front, with an increase of 2.6 million votes, 70% won back from Sarkozy's party. The National Front scored 20% or more in 11 out of 23 regions and 43 out of 101 departments.
In the department of Gard on the Mediterranean coast, the National Front won the first-round contest. It came second in three regions and very close in another two, including the very working class Nord-Pas de Calais, where its vote reached 35%-40% in the mining regions.
The National Front’s gains came most of all in poorer suburban and rural areas that had voted for Sarkozy in 2007, while the poshest neighbourhoods stuck with Sarkozy.
The National Front consolidated its support in its heartland along the Mediterranean coast. It created a new crescent of support in 20 departments along France’s north-eastern border with Germany, Luxemburg and Belgium ― sites of factory closures and industrial “reconstruction”.
From all over “forgotten” France, the story was the same. In Meurthe-et-Moselle, old industrial country on the Luxemburg border, the former steel town of Gandrange registered an National Front vote of 28.2%.
In nearby Florange, whose blast furnaces are under threat, the National Front vote reached 29.6%
In small towns and villages the National Front vote often exceeded 40%, supported by older working-class workers who say “the left has abandoned us”.
The National Front also marked advances in areas in rural France known for their unquestioning loyalty to ruling conservative parties. In the Orne region of Lower Normandy, the National Front scored between 30% and 40% of the vote.
Why? The mayor of Beaulieu told Le Monde of “a kind of anguish in the rural world. People feel abandoned by the public services. Here there are eight rural businesses.
“They used to vote for Sarkozy with their eyes shut. Now 75% of them have gone over to the National Front.”
Another region in which the National Front made strong gains was southern Corsica, where it was once ostracised by Corsican national sentiment.
This election, the National Front came in second in the region behind Sarkozy on the back of a campaign supporting local fishing and opposing illegal immigration from northern Africa.
The National Front message was an xenophobic as ever ― and Le Pen exploited the tragic Toulouse shootings to the hilt. But it would not have won as much support as it did without combining racist alarmism against Islam with ferocious attacks on the political establishment, decaying services, Europe and the euro.
A return to the French franc, Le Pen said, would allow economic revival and job creation and fund the reopening of public services in abandoned and impoverished rural and outer suburban France.
But did this high score for the National Front come at the expense of the Left Front? Melenchon addresses this question in an April 25 election analysis on his blog. He drew the conclusion that “where the National Front progresses the Left Front also progresses” and that this dynamic “reflects a radicalisation in society”.
For the Left Front leader, working-class areas are “far from handing themselves to Marine Le Pen. Thus, at Petit-Couronne in Seine-Maritime where the closure of the Petroplus petrol refinery threatens 900 workers and which all presidential candidates visited, Sarkozy lost 249 votes, Hollande won 114, Le Pen 436 and the Left Front 693 … an example showing the space the Left Front can carve out for itself in the face of the right.
“The two departements where Sarkozy had his worse scores ― la Seine-Saint-Denis and l’Ariege ― are also where the Left Front had its best results ...
“At Audincourt, where 3000 workers work on the sites of PSA Sochaux-Montbeliard, Sarkozy lost 439 votes and Marine Le Pen won 376, while we won 740!
“The result is that we are well on the way to replacing the traditional left.”
Is a Hollande victory now certain? Even though opinion polls predict a win over Sarkozy, Melenchon stresses that it is critical that Sarkozy be defeated by popular mobilisation, beginning with a huge, united May Day demonstration.
Moreover, the most progressive proposals in Hollande’s very mild 60-point plan for government ― 60,000 teaching jobs, a renegotiation of the European fiscal pact and steeper taxation of the rich ― are already being pooh-poohed as impractical electioneering by the European powers-that-be.
If they are to have any chance of implementation, the mass mobilisations that marked the Left Front’s election campaign will have to continue.
Concerned that between 15%-20% of Left Front voters might abstain in the second round, the Left Front leader says that “the citizen´s revolution is best fed by victory over adversaries than the opposite. Defeating Sarkozy is our urgent task and will provide oxygen to social action in our country, that’s for sure…
“All this is necessary so that what we have begun to build can develop further. But it’s also what the left in the whole of Europe expects of us ― to break up the present leadership which rightly goes under the name of 'Merkozy'.”
It will also be vital for the ongoing struggle with the National Front for the hearts and minds of the victims of the crisis.
[Dick Nichols works in the Green Left Weekly European bureau. read more articles by Dick Nichols.]