Sarkozy’s Conservatives Prevail in Local Elections

The former president’s right-wing alliance takes over 28 local authorities.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives took over control of 28 départements from the ruling Socialists on Sunday.

In the second round of local elections, the Union pour un mouvement populaire and its allies altogether won 67 out of 101 départements — a level of government comparable to provinces in other countries. President François Hollande’s Socialists held on to power in just 34.

The far-right Front national, which got a quarter of the votes in the first round last week, failed to win any of the runoffs. As expected, centrist and left-leaning voters in the areas where it was ahead opted for mainstream conservatives instead.

The Front, which appears to have plateaued at around 25 percent support, did see 62 of its candidates elected to local councils which have power over child services, roads and secondary schools. A wider political presence across the country could help party leader Marine Le Pen position herself for a strong bid in the 2017 presidential election.

The lesson for Sarkozy, argues Open Europe’s Vincenzo Scarpetta — “now that France is for all intents and purposes a three-party country” — is that fighting elections in alliance with centrist parties can be the key to securing victory.

Yesterday’s result has no doubt tightened Sarkozy’s grip on his party but doesn’t guarantee that he will be the centre-right presidential candidate in 2017. Former French foreign minister Alain Juppé remains a tough opponent, not least because he’s seen as better placed than Sarkozy to attract centrist votes in the race for the Elysée.

Ahead of the election, Sarkozy had rhetorically 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 that they have fully embraced the French culture and language, suggesting the former president was determined to win the election by drawing back voters from the Front national.

Nationally, the Front‘s support hardly dropped from the first to the second voting round, however — down from 25 to 22 percent. Sarkozy and his allies picked up almost a million more votes in the runoff, mainly from centrists and moderates.

That suggests Sarkozy’s strategy — allying with small centrist and right-wing parties — was right but his rhetoric, at least on integration, is off.

The elections were a clear defeat for the Socialists who only got 13 percent support in the first round. Scarpetta predicts that the outcome will increase tensions within a party that is already divided on economic policy.

Since Hollande tapped Manuel Valls to become his prime minister in April last year, the 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.

However, Hollande has yet to make good on his promise to bring down unemployment from 10 percent and Valls’ reformist agenda has alienated the Socialists’ Green and far-left allies. Small left-wing parties got more votes together in the first voting round than the Socialists did on their own. This division on the left benefited the right in the second round.