Some lessons from the County Council elections (Départmentales) in France
As from the first round, the French County Council elections showed a strong swing to the Right and extreme Right. In the previous elections of 2008 and 2011, Left votes, taken as a whole, came very close to 50% – they didn’t even reach 37% this time. The traditional Right (UMP and centre right) rose from 5% in 2008 and 15% in 2011 to over 25% in 2015. The extreme Right is beginning to succeed something it has hitherto failed to achieve – its national influence is being strengthened by local roots. The FN came top, in votes, in 23 Counties and its candidates were able to stand in the second round in 1,100 cantons (out of 20,000) – often in favourable conditions.
The Socialist Party paid the price of its discredited governments and of its strategic choice of moving to the centre. In 2008 and 2011 it scored, on its own, 26,7% and 24.9% of the votes. This time it barely reached 21%, often in the form of alliances. The disavowal is scathing and was shown in the second round by the loss of 27 Counties previously run by Socialist (out of 56 before the elections). Following these elections 2/3 of the Counties are controlled by the Right.
Thus this election was a fresh demonstration of the political crisis that is undermining French democracy today. While not as great as in 2011 (49.8% as against 55.7%) the rate of abstention is at a very high level, especially in urban areas where working classes tend to concentrate. The policies followed by governments, be they Left or Right, are transforming popular discontent into resentment rather then anger. Yet this resentment, stimulated by the decline in social expectations, on the Right as on the Left, is not leading to a fighting spirit and transforming struggles but to civic withdrawal and votes for the National Front.
The new electoral law in many cases led to alliances, in particular with the Europe=Ecology-Green party. In total the double candidacies (all candidacies had to be of a couple, one man and one woman) in which one of them was a member of the Left Front scored about 9.4% of the votes cast in the first round. By way of comparison, in 2008, the PCF had secured 8.8% and in 2011 the Left Front had scored 8,9%.
Compared with the decline of the Socialists and the Left generally, this can be considered an encouraging result. This optimism should, however, be qualified. The Left Front stood firm – but it did not progress. Nor did it eat into the popular electorate that is distancing itself from the Socialists.
The second round results confirmed the trends shown in the first. In a context that was disastrous for the Left, and despite an unfavourable electoral polling system, the Left Front retained almost two thirds of its previous county council representation. Still standing in 113 cantons in the second round, it kept 163 councillors of the 214 it had before, but is present in only 37 county councils as against 61 previously.
While, too often, the disparity with the NF was not as great as formerly, the Left front was only beaten by the NF in three cases. In areas disintegrated by the crisis, it showed that the discontent and anger or resentment of the working classes did not inevitably swing them towards the National Front. The NF wanted to show that it had taken the PCF’s place in the working classes. It succeeded in this at national level (it still scored 22% in the second round) but locally it did not floor the communists or the Left Front.
For the moment Marine Le Pen’s party continues to be rejected by a far from insignificant part of the electorate, but it has never had such high scores. Its capacity to form alliances remains limited and the extent to which the traditional Right electorate might vote for it in second rounds would not give it a majority. Nevertheless, the dykes are beginning to crumble, the lines separating the traditional Right from the NF are less impermeable and the Front’s work of legitimising itself is continuing.
The transfer of votes of the Left in the second round worked once again. However, contrary to the strategy of the Socialist Party (PS) of smothering all other trends so as to rally the Left round it and its policies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the former logic of Left unity no longer has the driving force it used to have. In essence, the Socialist Party’s Rightwards slide is weakening argument for rallying round, especially when this means explaining that the rallying round must, imperatively, be behind and under the leadership of the dominant party. Thus the dynamics for a Left majority need other motivations and spirit or the Left will sink with the PS while the working classes will increasingly plunger deeper into abstaining or voting for the FN.
For the moment the Left Front is living on the PCF’s past gains, at least in the more local elections. The fact of these roots show their capacity for resistance, which is very variable depending on the elections, does not negate the overall observation that, since 2008 (apart from the Presidential election) the vote for the Left Front remains in the modest pools of the Communist vote, which has not stopped its process of gradual erosion from the top. The electoral dynamism of the less dense areas only partly compensates for the subsidence of its former “strongholds”. For the moment, the opening of alliances to the Left of the PS has not been wide or visible enough to leave its mark on the electoral landscape.
In admittedly very different contexts, the same level of decline in number of elected representatives could be observed in the 2014 municipal as in the 2015 County Council elections. When the Left is doing badly, the existing heritage is valuable and provides a basis of support. However, in the present situation, this does not allow the Left Front to escape from the pincer movement hitting the Left of the Left: either it must close itself into being a goad, minority protest movement or, on the contrary, becoming the water-carriers of a social democracy that has moved to far from egalitarian horizons.
The culture of social criticism and of presenting the alternative cannot be satisfied with a timid rentier management of a heritage. Social transformation and the democratic upsurge need much more creative and rousing dynamics – failing which today’s marking time is very close to being tomorrows decline.
Translation: Jimmy Jancovich