Given the unpopularity of the Hollande government, the disarray of France’s center-right opposition, the rise of the National Front, and the European parliamentary elections in May, there are clearly going to be developments coming from the votes cast on March 23rd and the run-off on March 30th that will have an impact far greater than who becomes mayor or councilor in a village or city.
By John Gizzi | March 19, 2014
Marine Le PenJean-Marie Le PenFrancois HollandeManuel Valls
When French voters go to the polls on Sunday (March 23) in the first round of elections for thousands of mayoralties and local councilor offices, they will also be sending some powerful signals on other and larger fronts.
Much like the title of H.G. Wells’ speculative 1933 novel, “The Shape of Things To Come,” the outcome of the municipal elections March 23 and subsequent run-off March 30 (between two top vote-getters, if no one gets a majority in the first round) will set the stage for the May European parliament elections as well as French President Francois Hollande’s future policies.
The most immediate and significant clue to emerge from the vote next week could be the political muscle of the National Front (FN) and its leader Marine LePen, easily the most controversial politician in France.
Unabashedly anti-immigrant and anti-European Union, the FN has a history of performing well in municipal elections. In the 1990’s, the Front won control of mayor’s offices in such major municipalities as Toulon, Orange, and Vitrolles (where the FN’s Catherine Megret became mayor in 1997, after politician-husband Bruno was ruled ineligible to run for campaign finance violations).
A stellar performance by the FN at the polls March 23 could easily propel them to an even better performance in the election for the races for the European parliament in May. With Le Pen and her father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, already Members of the European Parliament, a just-completed Gallup Poll shows their party actually leading all others with 23% in races for MEP seats from France.
Coupled with similar strong showings by UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), the Austrian Freedom Party, and other “Euroskeptic” parties, a record showing by the FN in May elections could create major problems at a time when the EU and its parliament have to make hard decisions such as those dealing with Russia.
But most immediately, the races for who rules City Halls in contests for mayor of Paris (a star-studded contest featuring two charismatic women) to those for numerous village councils offer French voters an opportunity to pass judgment on their embattled Socialist president.
Sending a Message to Hollande
With unemployment at nearly 10%, a trade deficit at $60 billion, and no signs of economic growth, Francois Hollande’s approval rating is now an anemic 17% in the TNS Sofres poll – slightly more than one-third of what Barack Obama’s is in most U.S. polls and the lowest approval rating of any post-war French president. According to the Economist, another poll that French newspapers did not publish showed that 56% of French voters felt Dominique Strauss-Kahn, disgraced former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, would make a better president than Hollande.
Leaders of Hollande’s PS (Socialist) Party nervously await a backlash from the voters on Sunday. Although the votes for local offices have no direct impact on national policy, a large vote against Hollande’s Socialists could easily convince the president to shift his cabinet and policy sooner rather than later.
Already, amid street protests and threats by entrepreneurs to leave France, Hollande has backed away from a 2012 campaign promise to raise the individual tax rate to 75% on annual incomes of more than one million euros. In addition, he has cut public spending, reduced some taxes, and labor costs.
Coupled with Hollande’s recent self-characterization as a “social democrat,” this move to the political center has sparked howls from hard-line Socialists. Many on the left fear that if the municipal elections result in a big win for the center-right and right, Hollande could shake up his cabinet of 35 ministers and select as prime minister their worst nightmare: Manuel Valls, interior minister and hard-liner on immigrant-related issues.
A proud centrist and admirer of Britain’s Tony Blair and other “Third Way” politicians, the 51-year-old Valls is seen by many in the middle as a future savior of the post-Hollande Socialist Party and possibly a future president.
To his party’s hard left, however, Valls is nothing short of the anti-Christ. What Hollande does with him in the aftermath of potentially hostile local election results this month could be a telling moment on the remaining three years of his presidency.
Incongruently, Le Pen Admires U.S. Tea Party and Russia’s Putin
Were France a two-party country much like the U.S., the beneficiary of any electoral backlash against the ruling Socialists would be the UMP (conservative) party of Hollande’s arch-nemesis, former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But since Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012, power within the UMP has been bitterly divided between two close associates of the former president.
Complicating things are recent hints from Sarkozy himself that he wants to make a comeback run for president in 2017. Many younger UMP members say “non.” They want a fresh face as their next presidential candidate. Increasingly mentioned as the “fresh face” is International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine LeGarde.
“The mainstream right is not as popular as it should be,” concluded Alexandre Lemarie of the venerable journal Le Monde, “It is more the FN that is gaining from the unpopularity of the government than the UMP.”
Dr. Ruth Wodak, professor of Discourse Studies at Georgetown University, notes that “Marine Le Pen’s success also stems from her attempt to distance herself from her father’s more extreme, explicit rhetoric. Indeed, Jean-Marie Le Pen is known to have, on several occasions, denied the Holocaust. In this way, she positions herself as moving to the center and thus might address other voters who would have never voted for her father.”
“On the other hand, she continues to lean towards the extreme right via her EU-scepticism and her alliance with other leaders of extreme right parties (such as HC Strache from the Austrian Freedom Party, or Vona, from the Hungarian Jobbik who draws on Hungary’s fascist past). Finally, she also joins the ‘blame game’ against the IMF, Germany and the EU because of their austerity measures.”
But do Le Pen’s views match up to the definition of “conservative” or “right of center?” During a stormy session with reporters at the National Press Club in November 2011, in response to a question from this reporter whether she was a small-government conservative and where she would make the cuts in government, Le Pen agreed that the state “is too centralized.”
However, the only cuts she specifically embraced were “cuts in immigration” that she predicted would save “$70 billion in the future” because “welfare is very generous [in France].”
Le Pen likened her candidacy to that of “the American Tea Party.” But she also praised Vladimir Putin, saying “I admire the way he made the oligarchs stop trying to sell their country in pieces” – a reference to the Putin-orchestrated arrests and trials of billionaire businessmen in Russia. She also called for greater “discussions and exchanges” with Putin and said that other nations dealing with Russia must “forget the past” and be “helping them.”
Today, Le Pen’s embrace of Putin seems rather awkward, to say the least, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
While voicing admiration for the Russian strongman, Le Pen echoed Putin’s position toward the West and branded the European Union as non-democratic and denounced NATO for its mission in Libya. But the same candidate who wants France out of NATO and the EU endorsed the revival of the Havana Charter, a trade agreement that would have established an international currency and that was rejected by the U.S. in 1951.
Having dismissed the euro as “an idiotic currency,” Le Pen had no problem with an international currency, because the Havana Charter, initially proposed by economist John Maynard Keynes, proposed just such a currency, known as the “bancor.”
As to whether Le Pen’s strategy will work, Dr. Wodak, currently writing a book on the rhetoric of the European extreme right, says: “Only the outcome of the elections will allow judging if her strategic ‘multi-voicing’ will have been successful.”
The Meaning of March 23rd
Much as American journalists do in U.S. races for governor and mayor, pundits in France read into that country’s municipal elections meanings that have little if anything to do with national and international policy.
But given the unpopularity of the Hollande government, the disarray of France’s center-right opposition, the rise of the National Front, and the European parliamentary elections in May, there are clearly going to be developments coming from the votes cast on March 23rd and March 30th that will have an impact far greater than who becomes mayor or councilor in a village or city.
Those developments and that impact are sure to be felt beyond the boundaries of France for weeks to come.