A bad day for M. Hollande

Yesterday was the second round of France’s municipal elections, and they turned out to be every bit as bad for the ruling Socialist Party as had been forecast from the first round (see my first round report here, which also explains how the voting system works).

The centre-right UMP and its allies seized control of dozens of major towns and cities: Toulouse, Reims, Saint-Étienne, Limoges, Tours, Valence, Amiens, Quimper, Argenteuil, Caen, Belfort, Ajaccio, Roubaix, Angers, Tourcoing, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Narbonne and more. Pau was won back by its former mayor, centrist leader François Bayrou, running this time with the support of the centre-right. Grenoble fell to the Greens, and a dissident socialist ticket beat the official centre-left list in Montpelier.

Avignon, Douai and Verdun were the only significant councils to swing the other way. The Socialists also retained control of Paris, with a reduced majority, 92 to 71. Turnout was estimated at 61.5%, up slightly from the first round but still a record low.

The UMP did well enough to seize first place in the headlines from the far-right National Front, whose impressive first round performance was followed through well enough to give it control of about ten councils, the main ones being Fréjus, Béziers, Hayange and Beaucaire. It also won a ward in Marseille, although it fell short in Avignon and Perpignan.

The National Front’s influence wasn’t limited to the councils that it won. Although it was defeated in many cities by tactical voting – with centre-left candidates rallying to a better-placed centre-right candidate, and occasionally vice versa – it also showed that its voters were capable of the same thing.

Take, for example, Limoges, in the south-west. The incumbent Socialist list led fairly comfortably in the first round, 30.1% to 23.8% for the UMP and 17.0% for the National Front. The Left Front had 14.2% and the centrists 12.3%; both withdrew to support, respectively, centre-left and centre-right. A far-left list that had 2.7% was eliminated.

Adding those up, you’d expect the Socialists to emerge with about 47% in the runoff to 36% for the UMP and 17% for the far right. But instead the far right’s vote fell to 11.1% and the UMP scored a narrow win, 45.1% to 43.8%. Clearly some left-wing voters failed to support the Socialists, but their main problem was that a big chunk of National Front support migrated to the UMP.

In what’s already been a bad year for Socialist president François Hollande, this is about as bad as it gets. There’s plenty of speculation that it will cost prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault his job. It will also be the cue for renewed factional infighting within the Socialist Party: many party activists blame Hollande for veering too far to the right on economic policy, although why voters who were upset about austerity measures would switch to the UMP is not entirely clear.

As I said last week, the predictive power of these elections shouldn’t be overstated. An equally emphatic win by the centre-left in regional elections in 2004 failed to translate into success at the presidential election three years later. It’s still a long way to 2017.

Nonetheless, for the moment the UMP is riding high. Party president Jean-François Copé described it as a “blue wave”, and he can now set his sights on possibly reclaiming control of the indirectly-elected Senate later this year. But with the National Front breathing down its neck, things may not all be plain sailing.

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