French elections: Who really comes out smiling?

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A National Front supporter reacts to first election results in Marseille. Photo: 13 December 2015Image source, EPA
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The elections have shown is that there is indeed a ceiling to the far-right's progress

The French for "phew" is "ouf", and it is a big "ouf" being heard across the country as mainstream politicians discover that the worst has not come to pass.

The National Front (FN) has not built on its first-round triumph. Marine Le Pen will not be giving press conferences as president of the north. The FN has been kept in its box.

The relief felt in the Socialists and among former President Nicolas Sarkozy's Republicans is not entirely unjustified.

What the elections have shown is that there is indeed a ceiling to the far right's progress.

At any given moment there will always be more people who oppose the FN than support it. And that means that Le Pen ever coming to power in France is most unlikely.

Socialist 'disaster'

Image source, AFP
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In the five years since the last regional election, the vote of Francois Hollande's Socialists collapsed by 16 percentage points

And yet. Who really comes out of this electoral race smiling?

Certainly not President Francois Hollande's Socialists. They may have "saved the furniture" - as the French expression has it - by holding on to at least five regions.

And they did the moral thing (in their own eyes) by standing down in the two regions where the FN had the best hope of winning.

But look more closely and you can see the Socialist disaster. In the five years since the last regional election, their vote collapsed by 16 percentage points.

Worse, while in office President Hollande has overseen the inexorable rise of a party he says is a threat to the country's very existence. It is his own failures - in employment, wages, security - that have fed the FN's popularity.

Finally one might add that in two regions - the North and Provence - which have been Socialist strongholds, there is now not a single left-wing assembly member.

That is the direct result of the party's abdication. From now on in those regions, the only opposition is the FN.

Bitter argument

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Nicolas Sarkozy's critics inside the party are becoming more and more vociferous

As for Les Republicains (LR) of Mr Sarkozy, their smiles are even more forced.

They had hoped to sweep the board in these regional elections - in the same way that the left swept the board at the last ones in 2010.

Instead they have maybe five regions - and two (or three if you count Alsace) won with the help of Socialist voters.

This is hardly the sign of a vigorous opposition.

There is now bound to be bitter argument over whether Mr Sarkozy's tactics are the right ones - and indeed whether he is even the right man for the job.

The former president says the country is increasingly right-wing so it would be madness not to follow the drift. He happily raises FN themes like Islam and immigration.

But others say if the party loses touch with the centre, it can never win.

Mr Sarkozy's critics inside the party are more and more vociferous. He seems to have lost his touch. Significantly several LR candidates asked him to stay away from their campaigns.

'Fist in abdomen'

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The gates of power remain tightly closed for Marine Le Pen

So that leaves Marine Le Pen. How did she fare?

There can be no hiding that the results of the elections are a big personal blow.

She has lost the chance to govern a region and show the world that her party is serious. She has been reminded that however strongly the FN performs, the gates of power remain tightly closed.

But in a way that suits her fine.

Because what it all means is that nothing in France has changed. The two main parties continue sharing out the goodies (in this case deliberately conniving to keep hers as well).

Meanwhile unemployment rises; terror stalks; the grim insurrectionary mood continues to spread.

Marine's prospects for power may be limited; but her appeal is as strong as ever for France's growing numbers of disgruntled and disaffected.

That "ouf" of relief? It's also the noise you make when you get a fist in the abdomen.