France’s conservatives claimed victory in local elections on Sunday, defeating the Euroskeptic National Front 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 won around 30 percent support nationwide, according to early results and exit polls. 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 National Front, but in the end the anti-immigrant 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.
“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 for a mainstream conservative rather than risk a far-right victory.
Some comfort for Le Pen
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 voting round of the 2012 election against 27 percent for Sarkozy and 29 for Hollande.
Lurch to the right
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 National Front, 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 in Sarkozy’s party.
The Front is protectionist and wants France to leave the euro. 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 far-right voters to switch.
A Front-light, Gaullist program, by contrast, would disappoint liberals 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 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 leave 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 some 500 townships, “including a hundred that we could have won, because of the division of the left.”