The results of the 2012 legislative elections in France were released Sunday, June 20th. What many had hoped for President Hollande is now publicly confirmed: La Gauche and the Party Socialiste (PS) have claimed majority over the French National Assembly. It is a historic day for the French left wing: For the first time since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle enacted the Vth Republic, La Gauche has control over each of the six levels of the political chessboard (local, municipal, regional, senatorial, presidential and legislative). François Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault’s team possesses the great power of a fully endorsed government. With this power now comes a demand for results. However, the legislative elections revealed remarkable trends among the French political landscape, which will probably define its shape until the presidential elections in 2012.
The objective for la Gauche was to gather an absolute majority, at least 289 seats. The PS collected 278 seats; its government partners (among which stands Cecile Duflot’s ecologists), fifty-five; and the supportive Front de Gauche, ten. For the PS, mission is accomplished. The right wing opposition—Jean-François Copé’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP)—obtained only 188 seats. Marine Le Pen’s Front National won seats (two) for the first time since 1986. Besides, the centre contender François Bayrou was not reappointed as deputy, whereas he held the position since 1986. Similarly to the FN, Bayrou’s Union for French Democaracy obtained only two seats. The remainder of the centre-right parties was undeniably too fragmented to weigh into the balance. The three parties together collected fourteen seats.
This is, overall, a net victory for PS, as Ségolène Royal, a candidate during the 2007 presidential elections, lost in the district of La Rochelle in Poitou-Charentes to Olivier Falorni, a socialist dissident who never withdrew from the race, despite threats from the party’s hierarchy. In fact, when the PS’s first secretary—Martine Aubry—urged Falorni to not confront to Royal, President Hollande tried to rescue his former partner through a public endorsement.
Royal’s defeat was predictable for several reasons. Foremost, the arithmetic was not on her side: an IFOP forecast dating from June fourteenth already predicted her defeat to Falorni by ten percent. Additionally, her personality may have irritated many. Although French people are familiar with Royal, most believe she lacks the appropriate stature necessary as a national politician; she declared her candidacy for National Assembly president before being elected a deputy. Sunday’s vote signals a disapproval of her nerve.
More importantly, her candidacy raised the first misstep in Hollande’s governance thus far: the first lady—Valérie Trierweiler—tweeted support to Falorni the night after the President said he was backing Royal. Thenceforward, a deputation against all odds could have been considered as a form of nepotism from Hollande.
Royal’s future does not look as bright as in 2007, as a result of her accumulated defeats (presidential, legislative and party primary). However, she can still hope to fight back from her position as Poitou-Charentes President to pursue ministry ambitions.
UMP in need of restructuration
For UMP, the defeat is hard to swallow. The party lost control of the Assembly and it is now reduced to play an opposition role that raises internal questions. More than the sole command of the lower chamber, a legislative election is an undeniable fight for exposure. When François Fillon confessed “since Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat, there is no natural leader for UMP,” he definitely aimed to shake the party’s hierarchy. In fact, Jean-François Copé became general secretary at a time when Fillon was Prime Minister and thus unable to compete. The latter is now the preferred candidate for the French to head the French right wing (27% against, 20% for Copé). Alain Juppé, Prime Minister under Chirac, also figures as a plausible outsider to take over UMP while Copé and Fillon fight each other. Although UMP’s presidency is not decided through the legislatives, the mediation those elections brought about is an efficient means to attack each other’s reputation.
All three protagonists surely have presidential ambitions. The position of general secretary of UMP would give them requisite credibility to run for 2017 presidential elections.
Admitting UMP’s governance is to be debated; it is, nonetheless, the party’s values and ideology that have been condemned over the past three months. While Nicolas Sarkozy was campaigning against Hollande, many blamed UMP’s radicalization on internal security and immigration matters—which brought Front National votes that would otherwise have been the pivot in the presidential elections. It is believed that this shift to the right cost Sarkozy victory. Indeed, despite the much softer tone Marine Le Pen infused in the Front since she took over, the party is still associated with a questionable, radical right ideology. Although UMP heads defined a clear distinction with FN, they had to disavow many of their own candidates for spawning with far right electorate to access deputation.
Scavenging the Front National
The Front National, on the other hand, is doubly interesting to analyze. First, the party’s raw objectives have much to reveal. Since the presidential elections, Bleu Marine seems to have taken a novel dimension. Its high levels of support (18%) made it temporarily the third party in France. Instead of being the spoilsport UMP feared they would be, Marine Le Pen and her team could plausibly aim for seats at the Assembly—for the first time since 1986. More than that, they could confidently believe that they would enter the parliament and sit on the bench of the Palais Bourbon. The election results tell otherwise.
However, forecasting FN results is quite problematic. While the surveys tend to be accurate for every other party, they often misjudge the Front National. In fact, people are not eager to divulge their support for the Front. The party also offers an interesting choice for hesitant and skeptical voters, as a vote of protest. It often happens that this category of voters chooses the Front at the last minute, making the results hard to predict.
The discrepancy between the actual and forecasted tally also has much to tell. For instance, when polls predicted FN to collect no more than ten percent at the presidential elections, it obtained eighteen percent, and when those conjectured at least five seats at the legislatives FN obtained only two. What could explain such a reversion in the outcomes?
First, the protagonists differed in each situation. Although Marine Le Pen ran in both elections, it appears her lieutenants were not able to draw as much charisma as their leader. Despite her status as leader, Marine Le Pen was not confirmed as a deputy. However, her 22 year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is the youngest person to be appointed as deputy in the history of Vth Republic.
Second, the stakes were different in each election: In the presidential, people could assert their frustration and anger without fear of a tangible result (in spite of her polling trends, it was unlikely for Le Pen to have been elected); in the legislative, the likelihood of having a Front National deputy was much higher.
Third, the legislative elections exhibit structure that leaves room for alliances and barrages. UMP and PS precluded FN from obtaining seats wherever they could, whereas it drew more than thirty-two triangulars across the country. Le Pen bore the brunt of this strategy in her district of Pas-de-Calais. As Marion Maréchal-Le Pen confessed on a BMFTV interview last Sunday that it is a relief that her party, representing about 20% of the French electorate, finally made it through an election whose procedure prevented it from integrating the National Assembly.
Move from the Centre
For centrists, the elections turned out to be a complete disaster. In the past, the political centre had a much greater weight on the national scene. For example, when it still battled under the concourse of Union pour Démocratie Française (UDF), it composed up to twenty-two percent of the National Assembly. It now has less than one percent of the chamber.
Following with a Gaullist heritage, UDF—which became Mouvement Démocrate in 2007—had always maintained historical bonds with the right wing (RPR, which became UMP in 2002). Yet François Bayrou’s stance during the presidential elections questionably deviated from this logic when he openly supported Hollande. Many criticized his attitude as a betrayal, which eroded a reputation already tarnished by his incapacity to be a decision maker. Bayrou then lost to a socialist in his district of Bearn. He admitted his defeat and said that he would review his engagement for France. The other centrist parties presented too little cohesion to exhert influence the rest of the political class.
The polarization of French electorate—mainly due to the context of economic crisis—has left no room for an autonomous centre. Rather, it lets flourish the advocates of radical cures, partly explaining the rise of extremes (FN and FG), for whom for than twenty-eight percent of the electorate voted.
The legislative elections confirmed the trend inferred by the presidential elections. The Front National confirmed its status as an opposition party, albeit with too few seats when compared to Marine Le Pen’s support in April. UMP will have to review its positions if it wants to claim the Elysée next time—and, while the conservatives seeks for its new “natural leader,” PS retains all the cards leading France through future challenges. Now that the political landscape is set, watch—because “le changement c’est maintenant”.
– Jules Morel