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State of the Left - France

Facing up to the Front National

Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi - 13 January 2016

With Marine Le Pen set to reach the runoff, both the Republicans and Socialists face strategic decisions about how best to approach next year’s French presidential election

Last year’s regional elections in France have set the terms of 2017’s presidential race. Broadly, they confirmed the establishment of three blocs – the moderate left, around the Socialist party (PS); the moderate right, around Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans (LR); and, still in (in)glorious isolation on the extreme right, the Front National (FN). The apparent bipartisme – dominance by Socialists and the Republicans (then named the UMP) – of 2012 has disappeared as the FN has moved to relative parity, in terms of vote share, with these two parties – and not far behind their two blocs when including the smaller parties such as the Greens and the centrist UDI (see Table 1).

 

Table 1: Left, right and FN electoral scores* since 2011


Cantonal 2011

Presidential 2012

Legislative 2012

European
2014

Departemental 2015

Regional 2015

Left

49.0

42.0

46.8

32.4

36.5

36.0

Right

33.0

38.1

36.4

36.7

36.4

31.7

FN

15.1

17.9

13.6

24.9

25.8

27.7

*percentage of valid vote in the first round
Left = PS, leftwing radicals, other left, EELV and Front de Gauche, excluding extreme left (LP, NPA)
Right = UMP/LR, UDI (Nouveau Centre, Alliance centriste, PRV), MoDem, other right, Debout La France (DLF)

How will these three blocs fare in 2017? Polls of first-round vote intentions are relatively unanimous about Marine Le Pen’s presence in the second-round runoff, most likely against the winner of the 2016 LR primary and rightwing candidate: Nicolas Sarkozy or Alain Juppé. In no scenario does François Hollande come close to challenging for a place in the second round. Both moderate blocs face a decision as to whether to turn to their radical flanks or to adopt a conciliatory centrist position in appealing to as large a group of potential voters as possible.

The Socialist incumbency is still blighted by an ailing economy – public debt which has increased from 88 per cent of GDP to just under 97 per cent, and unemployment above 10 per cent for the first time since 1997. Assuming that Hollande will only gain marginally from a ‘rally round the flag’ effect from the war in Syria and national security, the Socialists have two historical touchstones to choose between. The first would be the founding governing strategy of the 1970s and 1997, looking to rally a ‘union of the left’ with the Green EELV and radical-left Front de Gauche, despite both minor parties’ internal divisions over precisely such cooperation, and poor recent electoral performances. More akin to François Mitterrand in 1988, the alternative would be a centrist shift, attempting to build a coalition with the UDI, the MoDem and disaffected LR notables such as Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. Already vaunted by PM Manuel Valls in 2014, an overt commitment to the type of social liberal agenda which has proved so divisive in the PS would rely on the frondeurs rebels falling in line in the absence of more radical left allies. What looks unlikely to succeed is some generalised appeal to both left and right, such as that proposed by party first secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis. While he had endorsed Hollande in 2012, centrist leader François Bayrou has criticised the PS’s project of Alliance Populaire as a fool’s bargain, indicating that the MoDem is more likely to remain anchored to the right in 2017, as has been the case since 2014.

The right’s decision will be set more or less in stone by this year’s LR primaries. Doubts over the effectiveness of Sarkozy’s hardline strategy to contain the FN mean his previously assured candidacy in 2017 is no longer certain. Nonetheless, a core of the party faithful are virtually indistinguishable from the FN in their views on immigration and security, so are likely to support Sarkozy over Juppé. Sarkozy himself sees leftwing vote transfers as certain in the second round of the presidential, to ensure Marine Le Pen’s defeat, providing little incentive to compromise ideologically. Alain Juppé’s appeal lies in his wide popularity, attracting support from the centre and left which may not be enough, however, to offset the likely defections from a moderated LR to the FN. Strategically, the numbers would need to be cataclysmically large to prevent victory over the left in the first round, but it would be a gamble. Moderate UDI regional candidates such as François Sauvadet and Philippe Vigier did not perform as well as LR hardliners such as Laurent Wauquiez for instance.

What of the root of such machinations? As the regionals proved, the political context seems ideal for Marine Le Pen and her party. The key political issues – unemployment, EU migration and Islamic terrorism – all play to the party’s programmatic strengths; there is continuing momentum in vote share, from 3.5 million in the 2012 legislatives to 6.8 million in 2015’s regionals. This vote is increasingly stable, promising well over 20 per cent in 2017. Based on its current electoral strengths, the FN could potentially win about 70 legislative seats in the 2017 legislatives, a substantial increase on its current two deputies.

Nonetheless, Marine Le Pen’s party still faces governing credibility issues. It is still regarded by many as a threat to democracy; its economic platform, especially on leaving the euro, is very weak; and it still remains on the margins of French political life, with little executive experience (something it had hoped would be rectified by the regionals), and rejection by civil society, from trades unions to employers’ associations. The FN’s strength continues, then, to be its nuisance power – diverting the mainstream parties from their core business as parties of government, but offering little in return.

Jocelyn Evans is professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in political science at the University of Nice. Together they blog on French politics an elections

Tags: Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi

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