The French regional election campaigns were fought largely on national issues, which has given the mainstream parties a foretaste of the battle to come in the presidential 2017 elections. EURACTIV France reports.
The French electorate has not yet had time to adjust to the country’s 13 new regions, whose borders were recently reviewed in order to better fit the needs of the European construction.
But geography and local politics took a back seat in the elections, which were dominated by national issues. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, security became a recurrent theme in the debates, despite the fact that the regions have no competency over the issue.
“Never have regional elections been so national in France,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist and researcher at Cevipof, a French political research centre. But any interpretation of the election results is complicated by a number of false appearances.
The result was heavily influenced by the withdrawal of the left wing candidates in two regions where the National Front (NF) looked likely to win. “What is most notable in this election was the first ballot, where the National Front won almost seven million votes,” the expert said.
2017 on the horizon
If we project these results onto the national level, the 2017 presidential elections appear black and white: it will be between the National Front and one of the other parties. And the mobilisation of voters in the second round, called out to halt the march of the extreme right, clearly illustrates the other notable feature of these elections: the late-comers were visibly motivated by national, not regional issues.
“The National Front could even come out stronger from this episode, which excluded them from the regional presidencies,” Cautrès warned. As a party that feeds off the notion of a power-grabbing conspiracy between the mainstream parties, the NF now has a convenient example to illustrate the unrepresentative nature of the French electoral system.
The NF took more local council seats than the Socialist party (PS), with 358 to 339. Yet the PS won the presidencies of five regions, while the concentration of votes in certain regions meant the extreme right party left empty-handed.
The Socialists posted good scores in the southwest, and in Brittany, with NF support concentrated in the east of the country, in strongholds like the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azure, around Marseille.
Faced with this increasing political polarisation, as soon as the elections were over, the mainstream parties started forming their lines of defence against the next NF onslaught.
The left counter-attacks on economic issues
Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron have already begun work on an “emergency package”, which will tackle France’s seemingly never-ending problem of unemployment; a question that remains the government’s number one enemy. And justifiably so, according to the think tank Bruegel, which has compiled a vast collection of literature linking economic crises with the electoral success of extreme politicians.
Now, as in the crisis between the two World Wars, the relentless rise of unemployment is an endless source of concern. Another historical element stressed by Manuel Funke is that extreme parties tend to gain votes after financial crises that threaten the banking system.
Both the right and left have to grapple with these explanations if they are to take on the NF, and the prime minister is already working on “shock measures” for immediate implementation, according to AFP.
“Jobs, training for the unemployed and teaching for our young people must demand all our energy, more than ever,” the prime minister said. On the left of the Socialist party, this language has awoken fears of yet more market liberalisation and increases to flexibility, as seen under Macron’s Economic Growth and Activity Bill, whose economic benefits remain to be seen.
Shift to the right for the Republicans
The entire political line of the French right will be called into question in early 2016. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of the Republican Party, hopes to oust his more moderate colleagues like Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in order to drag the party further to the right.
The regional elections marked a significant failure for the centrists, who struggled to assert themselves anywhere. Allied with the Republicans in Normandy, the centrist Hervé Morin only just edged out the Socialist party candidate.
Yet the structure of the Republican Party is a subject of no minor importance. It will determine the organisation of the primaries, to be held in mid-2016, to choose the party’s candidate for the presidential elections.
If a broad electorate is invited to participate in the primaries, it seems likely that Alain Juppé, a more moderate choice than Nicolas Sarkozy, may claim the nomination. “But if less than a million voters participate, the winner will most likely be Sarkozy, who is the favourite of the most fervent right wing militants,” Cautrès said.
It looks like the French regional elections have fired the starting gun for the presidential elections in 18 months’ time.