French politics further confirmed its rightward trajectory after the second round of departmental elections on March 29.
There are 101 departments and 4108 councillor positions across the country. Departments are in charge of local roads, school buildings and buses, welfare allowances and various other local issues. But the elections also represent a barometer of the political situation in the country.
The governing nominally centre-left Socialist Party (PS) suffered a humiliating defeat against a right-wing united front headed by the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
About 25 seats swung from left to right, leaving 34 councils controlled by the centre-left and the centre-right in charge of 67. The PS and its allies secured about 32% of the vote in the second round, compared to 45% for the UMP and its allies.
Crucially, the right's gains extend to departments in the north of France traditionally dominated by the left. Apart from a brief hiatus in the 1990s, the left has been in control of France's north since the end of World War II.
UMP leader and former president Nicolas Sarkozy is using the results to strengthen his bid to be the next UMP presidential candidate.
The real winner, however, was abstention. At 50.1%, the abstention rate reflects the general malaise and political disenchantment in France.
The elections also confirm that, unlike in Spain and Greece, the ongoing social crisis in France and political instability has not favoured the left.
Instead, the anti-immigrant, nationalist National Front (FN) has emerged from the elections claiming a “great success”, cementing their position as the third major party in French politics.
In the first round, the FN emerged with the second highest votes after the UMP, at 25%, coming first in a number of departments.
This meant that in many departments, the left voters faced the harsh choice of voting for the UMP to keep out the FN in the second round run-offs.
The FN vote fell slightly in the second round to 22%, but it still represents a consolidation of the FN as a “mainstream” party.
The true success of the FN, however, is the rightward pressure it is placing on French politics. It gives the UMP space to increase its own racist rhetoric and pressures the ruling PS to respond to the “immigration question”.
Combined with the failure of the PS to offer resistance to the Europe-wide austerity drive and tackle growing unemployment, this has led to a deep rightward shift in French politics.
The PS's attacks on workers' rights and spending cuts have left its traditional vote base disillusioned and disoriented.
The UMP, meanwhile, is going to ever greater lengths to prove its racist credentials while posing as the party of “good governance” and “stability”. These are code words for accepting the disastrous austerity politics of the European Union and the European Central Bank.
For its part, the far left continues the soul-searching and debate that has gripped it since the failed efforts of the Left Front (FG) in last year's municipal elections.
The Left Front, which unites the French Communist Party, the Left Party and smaller left groups, failed to build on the momentum it gathered in the 2012 presidential elections, when Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon won 11% of the vote after a lively campaign.
The forces to the left of the PS nonetheless managed to maintain about roughly three quarters of their overall representation in departmental councils.
The Communist Party held on to its control of the Val-de-Marne department in the Paris region. Overall, the various groups in the Left Front won 176 seats, most belonging the Communist Party, running under its own banner.
Communist Party head Pierre Laurent noted this made the Left Front the “third political force” in terms of numbers of elected councillors, ahead of the FN with only 62 councillors. But the momentum is clearly with the far-right FN.
The Left Front has been debilitated by a protracted disagreement between Melenchon's Left Party and the Communist Party over strategy, particularly how to relate to the PS.
With the Left Front stagnating, several new left projects are being discussed. None, however, have so far succeeded in finding a common basis to advance.
Last year, Melenchon established the Movement for the 6th Republic (M6R) it aimed to appeal to those who, uninspired by the traditional left, tend to abstain from politics.
The movement was directly inspired by the new anti-austerity party Podemos in Spain, which has rapidly grown in popular support. The M6R has borrowed Podemos's model of local “circles”, horizontal organising and engaging with social networks.
The M6R remains a marginal, still largely unformed force, but is in the process of cementing its organisational structures.
A different perspective has been put forward by Clementine Autain from Ensemble, a third force inside the Left Front. Autain has called for the forming of a “French SYRIZA”, in response to the success of Greece's radical party in winning government in January.
Autain said this meant “uniting all those who, in French society, aim for its social and ecological transformation”. This would involve those in the Left Front as well as the Greens and left dissidents in the PS.
Cecile Duflot from the Greens has, on her part, called for a “new political force” uniting the country’s “progressives”. Rather than a new party, Duflot suggests “a cultural, social and civic force” based on ecological questions.
Duflot said it was too early to tell whether such perspectives could lead to a united left presidential candidate in 2017, but left the possibility open.
This openness to new left unity is a good sign. But it is clear the French left face an uphill battle to form a viable alternative to the left of the declining PS in the face of an ascending far right.
Such an alternative needs to shift the political discussion away from stigmatising Muslims and immigrants, instead forging new popular struggles against austerity.
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