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French voters punish government in local elections

This Sunday saw the final round of voting in the French municipal elections. The headlines were simple. The ruling Socialist Party (PS) were crushed, leading to a new Prime Minister (and cabinet), while the far-right National Front (FN) have made historic gains, winning eleven towns.

merciThe Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo (right) became the first female Mayor of Paris but she was the only silver lining to the election’s black cloud for the PS where they lost control of an incredible 140 towns.

 

The wrong direction

However, while President Hollande has recognised the voters want a new tack, he risks drawing completely the wrong lessons. He announced that he intends to lower taxes and pushed ahead with his “Responsibility Pact” aimed at lowering payroll taxes for companies to the tune of £25 billion. This led the Communist Party (PCF) to say that Hollande “only listens with his right ear”.

The incoming Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, compares himself to Blair, thinks the current austerity policies have not gone far enough and wants to dismantle the 35 hour week. I wonder if the French share the expression “when you’re in a hole, stop digging”.

It’s not surprising that concern for this new direction has reached right into cabinet level. Housing Minister, the Green (EELV) Cecile Duflot said, prior to his appointment, that she would refuse to serve under Valls in the new government.

 

The Greens

Emmanuelle Cosse, the National Secretary of the Greens, said that  “we find that [Hollande] has not heard the voice of the voters” and that they will be reassessing their support for the government, where they’ve had two cabinet ministers since 2012.

Indeed it may be wise for the Greens to distance themselves further from the government as, in contrast to the PS, their vote improved on 2008 and they won control of 27 towns, including Grenoble where they worked in alliance with the left. The Greens dismissed the idea that the French are moving to the right and instead point to the record abstention rate where centre-left voters stayed at home, letting the right in.

 

The rise of the far-right

fn 2014

Under Marine Le Pen (right, with her father) the FN has relentlessly pursued a rebranding exercise, to detoxify the party’s reputation. This appears to have paid off.

Winning control of 11 towns is the best local election result the party has ever had (it’s previous record being 4 towns in the 90’s).

The new FN backed mayor of Beziers, Robert Menard, may be an example of the new, voter friendly, FN. The Algierian born politician is a founder of Reporters Without Borders, a pioneer of radical pirate radio and is reputed to be an ex-Trotskyist. However, his support for the return of the death penalty and his objections to equal marriage and immigration show that the FN’s political program is unchanged regardless of how slick their media operation has become.

 

What about the left?

As with local elections in the UK it can be difficult to draw out a national picture from highly localised results. In some areas the Communist Party, Anti-Capitalists and Greens worked in alliance, sometimes this could include the Socialist Party and in other areas the parties decided to go it alone or worked together in all kinds of different combinations.

The Communist Party (PCF) won 94 towns (of 3,500 people or more) and said that it was still the “third largest national network of mayors, retaining major cities and winning Aubervilliers, Montreuil and Thiers.” However, its vote has flagged and it saw losses in several areas, possibly as a result of its ambiguous position towards its relationship with the PS.

The Left Party (part of the Front de Gauche) stated that “The left who independently opposed or questioned the government’s policy” did not suffer the defeats of the party of government. Pointing to the far left backed Green success in Grenoble they said that a united left can create a “left majority”. They stated that “The Front de Gauche can be the lever with [the Greens] as a principle ally, if they increase their challenge to government policy.”

The New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) described their results as “modest” winning, as part of various coalitions, ten councillors and a Mayor of a small town, Lormont, who began her victory address with “I appear to be Mayor”, which is a nice touch.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the FdG, called on people to turn out on April 12th in a united mobilisation against the new government. He described the new PM Manuel Valls as an “ultra minority in the socialist movement, a minority on the left, and we shall soon see, a very small minority in the country.” He said “we don’t need a redesign but a complete change of politics.”

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