On the last two Sundays in March, France elected new governing councils in its 101 départements. The ruling Socialist Party had controlled 61 of these but lost more than half. The big winner was the right-wing Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), now led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, which forged an alliance with the centrist Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI). But Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) won a historic 25 percent of the first-round votes.
Although the FN will not control any départements, its showing was nevertheless remarkable. Traditionally, the party has not devoted much effort to this relatively humble level of the French political hierarchy. Its strength was concentrated in specific regions such as the depressed postindustrial northeast and the coastal southeast, where friction with immigrant populations swelled its ranks. The FN might occasionally capture the mayor’s office of a medium-sized city, but under the leadership of founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN was essentially a party of protest, not government.
Jean-Marie wanted to make noise. His daughter, who has led the party since 2011, wants to be president. She has broadened the party’s base by refocusing its platform, altering its rhetoric and appealing to younger voters. Polls show that the FN electorate remains staunchly opposed to immigration. But the younger Le Pen has shrewdly recast the issue as a defense of the “republican” value of laïcité (secularism) rather than open hostility to immigrants. Tactics such as these have “de-demonized” the party, as the French media like to say, and thus removed much of the stigma of voting for it. FN voters tend to be younger and less educated than the population at large. Many come from the working class, 40 percent of which now votes for the party.
With this most recent election, Le Pen made a concerted effort to expand her party’s influence into corners of France where it had previously been weak. In the first round of departmental voting on March 22, the FN fielded candidates in 93 percent of France’s départements, more than any other party. This expansion of the FN electorate has altered the French political landscape. Although France, unlike the United States, remains a country with many political parties, the importance of the presidency has tended to enforce a two-party logic in presidential years: Smaller parties may run in the first round of the presidential vote, but in the second round voters generally choose between a center-right party and a center-left one.
But now that the FN is drawing more votes than either the Socialist Party (PS) or the UMP by themselves (that is, not counting votes won by their coalition partners), the next presidential contest could be a three-way affair in which only one of the two hitherto dominant parties will make it to the second round (as happened once before, in 2002). Even then, it is unlikely Marine Le Pen will be elected president in 2017: There are still too many voters who say they will not vote for her for president no matter who her opponent may be. But as the party’s presence expands and voters become more familiar with FN candidates at the local level, the taboo may weaken enough to make a Marine Le Pen presidency possible.
Another fear is that the substantial losses by the PS in the last elections undercut the party’s traditional base of support in cities and towns. Municipal socialism was the breeding ground for national leaders as well as a source of employment for party activists. These prizes have now fallen to the rival UMP. In addition, many people who voted for Socialist Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential contest abstained in the last two elections due to widespread disappointment with the policies he has pursued. After vowing to fight “the world of finance” and German-led austerity, Hollande reneged on a promise to renegotiate an agreement his predecessor had signed with Germany, raised taxes on individuals and reduced taxes on corporations in an effort to increase industrial competitiveness. His approval rating plummeted to 13 percent at one point, the lowest in the history of the Fifth Republic. As a result, the coalition he had formed with the Green party collapsed, some left-wing Socialist deputies and ministers rebelled, and the far-left Left Front party moved from tacit support to open opposition.
These deep divisions account for the dismal showing of the PS in the departmental elections. After a similarly weak showing a year earlier in the municipal elections, Hollande responded by replacing Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with Manuel Valls. But having gone all-in with the relatively centrist Valls, Hollande has little room to change course again. Only a dramatic upturn in the economy could win back disaffected left-wing voters — and even then they may not vote for a party they believe betrayed them. It is no wonder some observers believe that the PS has entered a death spiral.
Meanwhile, the surprise winner is Sarkozy. In 2012, his position was similar to Hollande’s in that his performance in office had discredited him with much of his own base. His attempt to woo defectors back from the extreme right only lent legitimacy to the FN’s new strategy under Marine Le Pen. Nevertheless, he lost to Hollande by less than 3 points. After leaving office, he was dogged by various charges of malfeasance (several investigations are still pending). Despite this, he reclaimed the party leadership in 2014. Although he will face several rivals for the UMP presidential nomination in 2017, his support among the party faithful is strong, and he is credited with having restored peace among the party’s warring factions.
In the departmental election Sarkozy directed his fire equally against the Socialists and the FN, a choice criticized by one of his potential presidential rivals, the more centrist Alain Juppé. But Sarkozy may have outflanked Juppé in the center by forging an alliance with the centrist UDI, and the election outcome — a substantial victory in terms of number of departments controlled by the UMP — seems to have vindicated both of Sarkozy’s tactical choices. He thus appears to be in a commanding position to retake the presidency in 2017 (unless, of course, one of the pending investigations turns up something substantial). Yet Sarkozy’s comeback, which few would have predicted in 2012, proves that in French politics, three years is a very long time.