France’s conservatives claimed victory in local elections on Sunday, defeating the Euroskeptic Front national in the first voting round and pushing the ruling Socialists into third place.
The win is a boon for party leader Nicolas Sarkozy who came out of retirement last year to seek reelection in 2017. His Union pour un mouvement populaire secured around 30 percent of the votes nationwide, early results and exit polls showed. If the results hold up, the right should be able to take over more than seventy départements.
Preelection polls had the conservatives neck and neck with Marine Le Pen’s Front national but the anti-immigration party got only 26 percent support, the same as in elections for the European Parliament last year.
Sarkozy immediately ruled out pacts with far-right candidates in the second voting round next week. “To those who voted Front national, we understand your frustrations,” he said. “But this party will not solve France’s problems. It will only make them worse.”
Elections were held across 102 départements, a level of government comparable to provinces in other countries. President François Hollande’s Socialists were projected to lose more than twenty out of the 61 they now control.
Under the two-round voting system, the Front is unlikely to take control of even those regions where it got a plurality of the votes. Centrist and left-leaning voters can be expected to vote a mainstream conservative into office rather than risk a victory for the far right.
Nevertheless, getting dozens of officials elected to councils — which control child services, roads and secondary schools — should help Le Pen position herself for a strong bid in the 2017 presidential election. She got almost 18 percent support in the first round of the 2012 election against 27 percent for Sarkozy and 29 for Hollande. In the runoff, Sarkozy lost reelection with 48 percent support that year.
In the days leading up to Sunday’s vote, the former president lurched to the right with proposals to ban headscarfs in public universities and stop high schools from serving halal meals to their Muslim students. He also called for stricter requirements for immigrants to demonstrate they have fully embraced the French culture and language.
The aggressively secular rhetoric is not altogether alien to the republican right but clearly tougher than it has espoused so far. Sarkozy seems determined to win back voters from the Front national but that could come at the expense of moderates who see Le Pen’s party as borderline racist.
It also threatens to open up divisions within Sarkozy’s party. The Front is protectionist and wants France to leave the euro but the right has advocated budget consolidation and market reforms in opposition to Hollande’s Socialist government. If conservatives continue that line, they might not persuade many Front national supporters to switch their vote. A Front-light, Gaullist program, by contrast, would disappoint liberals in the party and could allow the Socialists to claim they are now more serious about making France competitive.
Since Hollande tapped Manuel Valls to become prime minister in April last year, his government has chartered a more business-friendly course, liberalizing shopping hours and protected professions, shortening labor arbitration procedures and cutting taxes to help companies reduce labor costs.
Although Hollande has yet to make good on his promise to bring down unemployment from 10 percent, the reformist agenda seems more popular. His party got 20 percent support on Sunday, up from 14 percent in the European elections. Yet it could end up leaving the Socialists with even less power. Valls’ U-turn alienated the party’s Green and far-left allies. Secretary of State Jean-Marie Le Guen told France 3 television that the left could be kicked out of five hundred townships, “including a hundred that we could have won, because of the division of the left.”