Europe

French voters ring changes and turn right

UMP supporters celebrate results of the French local elections, France, 29 March 2015 Image copyright AFP
Image caption There were celebrations at UMP headquarters as the scale of their victory became clear

The perpetual ding-dong of French politics went from ding to dong on Sunday.

One side, the dingers, was cock-a-hoop.

The others, the dongers, swore they would be back next time.

Both the conservative dingers and Socialist dongers agreed on one thing, though. Thank goodness they had once again kept out those nasty upstarts, the clangers of the National Front.

In France, when they ring the changes, it's the same old tune.

At the last lot of elections during the Sarkozy presidency, the map of France turned from blue to pink.

Now the Socialists are in power so the map has gone conservative blue again.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nicolas Sarkozy (L) has done little to impress voters since taking over the UMP leadership late last year

First the towns, then the European constituencies, then the Senate, now the departments. Later this year it will be the regions that change hue.

Every time the winners - dingers or dongers - claim that things will be different. They genuinely rejoice.

But in the end they don't do anything particularly new.

Politics goes on - the same mix of largesse and penny-pinching, tough talk and special pleading, promises, promises, promises.

But the level of public disillusion rises a notch each time. And, as we know, the clangers are the party of disillusion.

Smack

These departmental - or county - elections conform perfectly to the pattern of the last 30 years.

The ruling party in Paris - in this case the Socialists - has suffered what the analysts are calling either a "gifle" or a "fessee" (a slap in the face or a smack on the bottom).

Departments that were once seen as bastions of the left have tumbled to the opposition:

  • First there was the Nord, the once industrialised area around Lille
  • Then the rural Correze, President Francois Hollande's personal fiefdom
  • Then the Essonne, in the southern Paris suburbs, home of Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

In the end the Socialists were left with 34 out of the 101 departments, down from 61.

The UMP and its centrist allies went from 40 to 67.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The best hope for PM Manuel Valls (L) and President Hollande is for a gradual economic upturn

Today the losers are being warned, as they always are, of the risks of political oblivion.

The French left, like the left everywhere, has always been prone to subdivision.

Now the rebellious faction of the Socialists is joining with the radical Left Front of Jean-Luc Melenchon to call for an end to Mr Hollande's mildly pro-market reforms.

We lost because we stopped being true to our left-wing selves, is the argument.

But Hollande and Valls won't change course. They are steering a delicate economic path that just about satisfies Brussels and just about satisfies a majority of Socialist MPs.

Their best hope is of ploughing on in the hope that a gradual upturn takes place between now and 2017.

A U-turn would a) probably not make any difference and b) suggest that the president is indeed, as his critics say, made of political blancmange.

Prince-in-waiting

Meanwhile the UMP of Nicolas Sarkozy is performing the time-honoured function of the winning party, and predicting glorious dawns.

But the former head of state has a peculiar relationship with the nation he lays claim to.

He is a prince-in-waiting who also happens to be the dethroned ex-monarch. Since taking control of the UMP at the end of 2014, he has not exactly shone.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Sarkozy faces challenges for the 2017 nomination from Francois Fillon (L) and Alain Juppe

Rivals in the party publicly contest his leadership, and he himself seems to waver between the manic energy of the old-style Sarko and a kind of above-it-all lassitude that suggests his mind is elsewhere.

He would certainly have carried the can had the UMP failed to perform in these elections, so it is only fair to give him some credit for the party's success.

However, one major caveat needs to be appended.

This victory was only achieved thanks to an alliance with the political centre (the UDI and MoDem parties).

Without their contribution the UMP score would have fallen in round one from 31% to 25% or so (roughly the same as the National Front).

But the strategy of looking to the centre has not been Sarkozy's. In the two presidential elections, his appeal was to wavering far-righters.

Arguably the result today gives a boost to Sarkozy's rivals for the 2017 nomination, Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon - both of whom lean more to the centre.

New force

So in the aftermath of another electoral test the dingers and the dongers are variously celebrating and drowning their sorrows.

But in their hearts the joy and the dejection are tempered by the knowledge that time is the real political master.

The Socialist grieves less because he knows that with the next turn of the electoral wheel he will be back.

And, even in the throes of victory, the UMPer senses the shadow of her inevitable demise.

That is the way it has always been. Unless….

Unless, this time the system is changing. Because now there is a new force in the land.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Marine Le Pen's party goes from strength to strength despite its built-in exclusion

The clangers, or National Front (FN), did predictably well in round one of the election and predictably badly in the all-important round two.

After getting a quarter of the national vote a week ago, on Sunday they could claim not a single departmental council. Such are the mechanics of French elections.

This disappointment has allowed the "mainstream" parties to keep up the pretence that all is as it should be.

The FN has a natural "ceiling", they argue, which means it can never actually gain power.

Given the electoral system, that may well be true.

FN leader Marine le Pen has every chance of getting through to the second round in the 2017 presidential elections, but practically no chance at all of becoming the next French head of state.

But this built-in exclusion of a party that has actually won a national election (the Europeans in 2014) is hardly a cause for satisfaction.

If anything it is a recipe for ever greater disillusion.

As the UMP and the Socialists continue to swap power and pursue (broadly) the same mix of ineffectual reforms, the populist but untested FN - being the main channel for discontent - goes from strength to strength.

For both the dingers and the dongers, that is the danger.

More on this story