It could confirm Francois Hollande’s revolution: or stop it in its tracks. It could prove that there is life after Nicolas Sarkozy for the UMP, or it could be the beginning of the end. It could bring the far left out from the cold or it could herald the triumph of the far right. There are numerous sub-plots as the French go to the polls in the first round of tomorrow’s legislative elections, each of which will have far-reaching consequences for France.
For the Parti Socialiste, the task is simplicity itself: get a governing majority in the National Assembly. The legislative elections – now held almost immediately after the Presidential polls, to reduce the number of stressful ‘co-habitations’ between the Left and the Right that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s – are often dubbed the ‘third round’ of the Presidential election: the first round prunes out the no-hopers and fringe lunatics, the second round chooses the President and the third decides how the President governs. Barring a major upset, the PS should have enough to govern with the support of their perennial allies, the Greens, and without having to court the support of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-line Left Front. Indeed, if the PS’ electoral machine is strong enough to repeat its second-round performance, it should win enough to comfortably clear the 289 seats needed to get a majority in the legislative assembly.
It is not inconceivable that a bad night for the Greens or a low turnout for the PS itself could see a three-party coalition formed; or a minority Red-Green alliance with the support of the Left Front. Then, Hollande’s decision to leave his former rival Martine Aubry – and a number of other left-leaning big beasts – out in the cold in favour of a slew of centrist moderates in his Cabinet could be left looking politically foolish. But even that would be a surprise, and barring a political earthquake, by the close of polls tomorrow, the PS should be home and dry.
More interesting is the fate of the Union for a Popular Movement, the UMP. In France, parties of the right tend to have a low life expectancy – they are summoned into existence by Presidential candidates and tend not to outlast their founders’ political careers – and the UMP is already something of an outlier. A chimera of parties of the right, it survived the political death of its own Doctor Frankenstein, Jacques Chirac, who brought into being in 2002, before being almost wholly remade by his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, under whom it enjoyed its best ever result: what one pundit dubbed the “simultaneous orgasm” of 2007, when it won first the Presidency and an absolute majority in the legislative elections. But 2007 turned out to be the high watermark for the UMP; it suffered heavy losses in local elections the year after, including a shattering defeat in the Toulouse mayoralty, and was crushed in the regional elections in 2010.
Those losses were not just bad for morale – and presaged the defeat of 2012 – but potentially fatal for party cohesion. A composite party like the UMP relies upon incumbency and the ability of party leaders to provide promotion and government largesse to keep disparate factions on side; shorn of government, the fissures in the UMP became visible very swiftly. Yet more losses would almost certainly precipitate the break-up of the UMP, but an unexpectedly good showing could yet save it.
Ultimately, the UMP’s fate will hinge on how the Front Nationale does, and the success of that party will almost certainly decide how this election is remembered in years to come. FN, like the UMP, looked to be facing extinction after the retirement of its founder and Presidential candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, with its 2002 second-round showing set to be its peak. But under the leadership of his youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen – the FN leadership is the last refuge of the hereditary succession in republican France – the FN has enjoyed a renaissance. Underneath, it’s still the same old Front Nationale, but if it can achieve real gains at the same time as the UMP falls back, this could go down in history as the moment that France’s far-righters became permanent contenders, not fringe performers.
This week’s European Talking Points
- He says it best, when he says nothing at all. Stefan Löfven, the Swedish Social Democrats’ newish leader, has seen month-on-month increases in his party’s opinion poll standing, and for the second consecutive month, the old Social Democratic alliance that carried all before it until Fredrik Reinfeldt’s rebranded Moderate Party ended decades of left-wing hegemony, leads Reinfeldt’s coalition in the polls. This is despite the fact that Löfven, a former trade union leader who started his career as a welder, has said very little about anything. His ‘safety first’ approach seems to be working at the moment, but it can’t possibly be enough to lead to a Social Democratic victory in 2014 – can it?
- Good news for headline writers in the Netherlands. The Dutch Greens have nominated Jolande Sap as their leader for the September parliamentary elections. The Greens increased their seat share at the 2010 poll, and all eyes will be on Sap as she looks to hold steady in the coming elections, but she’ll face an uphill battle as newly-elected and charismatic Labour Party leader Diederik Samsom looks to take back Holland.
- And as Euro 2012 gets underway, let’s take a moment to remember Luxembourgeois Deputy Prime Minister Jean Asselborn – the Socialists’ major player in the current ‘grand coalition’ between right and left – and his contribution to the question of whether or not European ministers should attend games in the increasingly-repressive Ukraine. “I think in these circumstances we need to have good football without many ministers being there,” Asselborn said. So presumably it’ll be alright for European heads of state to watch Hodgson’s England.