By Sophie Desvignes
On March 30, French citizens decided on whether or not to renew the 6-year term of their mayors. Occurring after the presidential election, municipal elections have become a way to evaluate the policy of the government and challenge the majority.
In the weeks leading up to the elections, polls had been showing the looming victory of the right and the growing popularity of the National Front. François Hollande knew that these elections were going to be challenging, but he had certainly not envisioned such blowback. After two years in office, the government did not succeed to quell the growth in unemployment, restore French competitiveness or maintain a consistent tax rate. In this context, the conservative upswing appears to be the best way to signify Hollande’s government failure.
The following three points stand out from last month’s election:
The Dramatic Defeat of the Socialist Party.
Le Figaro, a rightist newspaper, talked about a “blue tsunami” hitting France, a reference to the right’s electoral dominance. The results provide credibility to this claim. At the national level, the right gathered 45.91 percent of the vote against 40.5 percent for the left. The outcome is even worse given that the votes for the far-right party reached 6.87 percent. In the end, 155 cities shifted from having a leftist to a rightist mayor. Journalists and politicians talked about a historical defeat because the right won some of the most emblematic leftist cities. Such is the case for Limoge, which has been ruled by the socialists for a century. History and tradition were apparently not enough to counteract the socialists’ crisis. Emile-Roger Lombertie (affiliated to the rightist political party UMP) was elected mayor with 45.07 percent of the vote.
The Socialists Suffered Defeat Because the Party Failed to Mobilize Voters
The other peculiarity of the election was the incredibly low turnout rate. More than 36 percent of the registered voters did not turnout on election day. This is the highest abstention percentage ever recorded for municipal elections since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. The only way for the left to prevent a defeat after the unfavorable results of the first ballot (French municipal elections rely on a two round ballot) was to mobilize abstaining voters. It failed to do so. However, rightist candidates mostly benefited from National Front (far right) voters who were left with a bipartisan choice. This raises an important point. While many people complain about the inefficiency of the current government, one-third of them do not take advantage of the political empowerment granted by their right to vote to initiate change. More than discontent toward the left among the general population, low turnout levels prove that mistrust in politics is incredibly prevalent in French society.
The Elections Signified a Great Victory for the Far-Right
The far-right party, The National Front, came to power in 14 cities. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, welcomed these results as a “new step” in politics. She said that “The National Front challenged the traditional UMP (right)/PS (socialists) duo” emphasizing the need to reckon with a “third great political force.” To say that this marks the beginning of a tripartite political system may be hyperbolic. Indeed, the French political system favors bipartisanship. Yet, it may redefine the traditional left/right divide. For the benefit of who is still in question. The National Front benefited from the economic crisis and political distrust, gaining radical followers in the past year. While this outcome was expected, the party now has the opportunity to implement its political platform on a broader scale for the first time. No doubt that these cities will be under scrutiny in the upcoming years, shaping the credibility of the National Front to act as a governing party.
These dramatic results demanded a response from the socialist government. Immediately following the election, Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault said that he took full responsibility for the situation. Rumors of government reshuffle or dissolution of the National Assembly quickly started to spread; however, the latter was not possible. It would simply have been a suicide act for the government. The National Assembly has a current socialist majority that would definitely be replaced if a parliamentary election were held today.
In the evening of March 31, François Hollande eventually announced a government reshuffle on TV. He addressed the people with responsibility and pragmatism saying, “I heard your message because it is clear, not enough change, too much slowness, too much unemployment, not enough social justice […] and too many concerns about the capacity of our country to pull through.” He then announced that he chose Manual Valls, former Minister of Interior, to be the new Prime Minister. This nomination is not a surprise. Valls always expressed the desire to have more responsibilities in the government. His regular appearances on television were even criticized for being out of place. He has been much more visible in the media than the past Prime Minister. This was recently the case when he condemned the shows of the humorist Dieudonné for embracing anti-Semitism and fascism.
The Prime Minister is in charge of conducting and implementing the government policy alongside the President. His role is far from being symbolic. Holland assigned Valls two main missions: to reinforce the economy and to implement social justice. The first mission will manifest itself as a “Pact of Responsibility” established between companies and labor unions. The aim is to decrease taxes on labor and economic activity in exchange for a commitment from the companies to increase hiring. Regarding social justice, Hollande introduced the “Pact of Solidarity.” He did not get into the details of it but provided general guidelines affirming that it encompasses a focus on education, social security (which does not solely cover retirement plans in France, but also governmental healthcare in general) and purchasing power. He ended his speech appealing to social appeasement emphasizing that “France faces a civic and moral crisis” which should not affect the Republic, “our common good.” It directly refers to the supposed rise of anti-Semitism (following Dieudonné’s humoristic shows) and the development of new far-right movements, mainly initiated by the legalization of same sex marriage.
Thus, Valls and his new administration have a big job ahead of them, but the fact remains that the government is actually not completely changed. There are only two newcomers: Ségolène Royal (a candidate for the Presidency in 2007 against Nicolas Sarkozy), who is now head of the Ministry of Ecology, and François Rebsamen who is now in charge of the Ministry of Labor. Despite Valls’s proposal to give ecologists ministry positions, Cecile Duflot and Pascal Canfin (the only representatives of the Green Party in the former government) refused to comply with the new Prime Minister, claiming disagreements with his political convictions.
As for the rest of the government, the reshuffle acts as a mere rearrangement with the same ministers occupying new functions. Michel Sapin, former Minister of Labor became the Minister of Finance and Public Account. Benoit Hamon replaced Vincent Peillon as the Minister of Education and Arnaud Montebourg was given the big responsibility of taking over as Minister of the Economy. Each of these departments is faced with sensitive and difficult issues. Among them are the need to reach the 3 percent deficit imposed by the European Union, create more than 45,000 jobs in national education to honor the 60,000 jobs promised during the campaign and save 50 billion euros by 2017. Now the Minister of Ecology, Ségolène Royal will also have to find answers to controversial issues such as the exploitation of shale gas (currently forbidden in France) and dependence on nuclear energy.
The government reshuffle also revealed the existence of a weak and divided socialist majority. Indeed, one-third of the socialist representatives asked for a “Contract of Majority”. In a letter addressed to the government, they claim that the time has come for a more powerful Congress. They argue that their bills and amendments have too often been ignored for the past two years. Thus, they want to have the guarantee of being associated with the executive power when it comes to primary issues such as employment, purchasing power and the regulation of financial activities.
It seems that François Hollande’s term follows the path of another François–François Mitterand–who resorted to a major government reshuffle in 1983 with the nomination of Jacques Delors as the head of the Ministry of Economy. It was a major shift in Mitterrand’s term, leading the socialist party to follow a more conservative economic policy. A look back at history seems to confirm the fact that the French socialist party cannot fulfill governing responsibilities without accepting a social liberal turn.
Photo by Blandine Le Cain