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France's municipal elections: New shoots in the rubble?

By Dick Nichols

April 20, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- After the first round of the French municipal elections (March 23, see here for coverage in Green Left Weekly), the media mainstream obsessed about the rise in support for the xenophobic and racist National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen. The only other stories found worthy of comment were the collapse in support for the ruling Socialist Party (PS) of president François Hollande and the surge in the abstention rate—to a record 36.5%. (This endnote[1] explains the French two-round voting system as applied to municipal elections.)

According to the Le Monde analysis of that vote, the PS would face losing 90 towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants at the second round (March 30). The FN had a chance of winning between ten and 15 of these.

Yet the final result for the PS on March 30, while predictable, was worse than any actual prediction—with a number of important local exceptions no cavalry of left voters who had abstained in the first round came riding to the PS’s rescue in the second. Despite urgent appeals for left voters to mobilise against the right, the nationally governing party suffered its heaviest local election loss in 40 years. Voters in working class, immigrant and poor neighbourhoods stayed home in droves, with abstention averaging 37.9%.

Even though the total left and far left vote recovered some 2.8% from the first round, this increase was almost totally offset by a 2.5% increase in the total right and far right vote as support for “others” (nearly 10% in round one) was halved and shared equally between the two broad camps of politics. The rights and far right’s advantage over the total left and far left vote fell only marginally, from 11.5% to 11.2%. (See table below).

2014 and 2008 French municipal elections compared.

The longstanding pattern of using council polls to protest against incumbent national governments reached a high point. The rising disaffection was also reflected in the record number of second-round three-way and four-way contests (986 and 207 respectively). The rising disillusionment boosted the first round vote for candidacies other than tickets led by the PS and the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). A record number of tickets, including many “citizens’ lists”, passed the 10% threshold allowing second-round participation.

Major towns and cities that had looked wobbly but probably safe for the PS after the first round ended up in the hands of the right. Of France’s 941 towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants, 151 passed to the right and extreme right, who now hold 572 (61%). Painful evidence of the right’s victory was its success in winning 30 such towns in the greater Paris region of Île-de-France. A majority of 21 of the 40 towns in the “red” Seine-Saint-Denis department, traditionally the most left in France, fell to the right.

Two years after the defeat of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and after François Hollande was elected on the slogan “Change, Now!”, the UMP, still beset by scandals and leadership feuds, is on the way back, exceeding its goal of returning to its 2008 situation and winning cities it had thought out of reach (like Toulouse and Limoges). The right’s swag of wins is the greatest since 1947 and it is now placed to win a Senate majority in September.[2]

However, all this booty will not, of itself, solve the problems besetting the French right. It has been distributed among a greater number of benefactors, with the official UMP opposition facing increasing competition from the “centre-right” agglomeration Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) and the moderate right (“centre”) Democratic Movement (MoDem). These last two formations have decided to run separately from the UMP in the European elections.

The PS lost thirteen of France’s 57 cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants to tickets run or supported by the UMP, UDI and MoDem. These were regional capitals Toulouse (Midi-Pyrénées), Amiens (Picardy), Limoges (Limousin) and Caen (Lower Normandy), and departmental capitals Pau (Pyrénées Atlantiques), Saint-Etienne (Loire), Angers (Maine-et-Loire), Tours (Indre-et-Loire), Chambery (Savoie), Valence (Drôme) and Angoulême (Charente) as well as north-eastern cathedral city Reims and industrial Thionville, bordering on Luxemburg.

Of these Pau, Limoges, Chambery, Angers and Thionville were not “swinging seats” but long-standing left bastions (Limoges for over 100 years).

The PS also lost three other cities with over 100,000 inhabitants: Montpellier (capital of the Mediterranean Languedoc-Roussillon region), to a dissident PS left ticket supported by local PS members in revolt against Paris HQ (“Solferino Street”); the Atlantic coast port city of La Rochelle (capital of the Charente-Maritime department), to another PS dissident candidate who had built an alliance with the EELV; and the half-million inhabitant alpine city of Grenoble (capital of Isère department), to a combined ticket of Greens (Europe Ecologie-Les Verts), non-PCF members of the Left Front (Left Party and Ensemble) and local ecologist and citizen groups.

The only major city won by the PS, Avignon, capital of the Mediterranean department of Vaucluse, changed hands because of local factors—“jobs-for-mates” scandals and divisions within the ruling UMP. In their desire to throw out their UMP and stop the FN (leading on round one), the citizens of Avignon reduced their abstention rate from 42.8% to 34.6% in the second round.

At the same time, within the broad right camp the harvest for the FN and other extreme right tickets was at the lower end of expectations (12 gains in towns of over 10,000 inhabitants ). In many places where the UMP or UDI had a chance of beating the PS in the second round, they could count on a return of voters who had supported the FN in the first round. This “useful vote” switch worked for the mainstream right in major cities like Tours, Reims and Limoges and a host of smaller centres.

In some cities, like Perpignan (capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales department) and in other towns along the Mediterranean coast, where the FN is strongest, a second-round win by the FN candidate leading on the first round was forestalled by third-running PS candidacies withdrawing and recommending supporters to vote UMP as a lesser evil. This sacrifice, carried out in the name of a “republican front” with the UMP, meant the loss of any PS council representation in towns where it was undertaken (e.g, 12 seats on the 55-seat Perpignan council).

However, the FN still made sizeable gains, taking north-eastern working-class Hénin-Beaumont (Pas-de-Calais) on the first round and following this up with victories in 11 other centres of over 10,000 inhabitants. Six of these were in its Mediterranean area of support, including Béziers (Herault department), this last won by Robert Ménard, the founder of anti-left “NGO” Reporters Without Borders, who ran as an independent with FN support. Its biggest prize was Marseille’s seventh sector.

Despite leadership hopes after the first round that it would escape punishment, the anti-PS earthquake also shook towns traditionally run by the French Communist Party (PCF), especially in the outer Parisian departments of Seine -Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne. In all, of the 186 councils of towns of over 3500 inhabitants that it had run before the election, the PCF lost 30 and gained eight. It looks to have lost around 25% of all the councils under its leadership before the poll.[3]

Symbolic was the fall of longstanding Paris red belt citadels like Seine -Saint-Denis capital Bobigny, to the UDI, and Villejuif (Val-de-Marne, held by the PCF since 1925), to the UMP. The Left Party, after the PCF the next largest affiliate in the nine-party Left Front, lost Viry-Chatillon, in the Paris dormitory department of Essonne. In contrast, the Greens (EELV), despite being part of the government of (now former) prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, emerged basically unscathed from the devastation, winning, according to their spokespeople, 11.8% where they stood in the first round, claimed as their best score in 15 years.

Vote to left of PS

Mainstream media coverage of the first round was marked by lack of interest in the vote to the left of the SP, which in the 2012 presidential election was overwhelmingly concentrated in the 11.1% support for Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

This was partly due to the complicated “variable geometry” with which these forces stood in this election. This dispersion was provoked by the PCF leadership’s decision to allow local branches to decide whether or not to run in alliance with the PS, which they did in half of France’s towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants.

In Paris, the PCF local organisation, pressed by national secretary Pierre Laurent, voted by narrow majority to join the PS on a Union of the Left ticket. As a result there was a separate Left Front campaign, with Left Party leader Danielle Simonnet as lead candidate.

In some other cities and towns where the local PCF ran with the PS the Left Party created united tickets with local Green branches (in 82 towns). Sometimes this “red-green” alliance embraced other Left Front affiliates like Ensemble! (Together!) and also forces like the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) as well as local activist groups.

However, non-PCF Left Front coalitions (on 40 occasions including the NPA) mostly ran without local Greens, who tended to stand alone or in coalition with the PS. In one extreme case, in the outer Parisian town of Villejuif (Val-de-Marne), the local Greens aligned with the UMP and UDI to defeat the PCF mayor.

The mainstream media’s indifference to the left-of-PS vote was also helped by (former interior minister, now prime minister) Manuel Valls, whose department coined the term “various left” to describe tickets involving different combinations of left, green and independent forces along with the term “various” for forces the departmental brain found too hard to classify. Digging out the level of support for the anti-government left therefore took a research effort for which the commercial media had neither motive nor energy.

For example, tickets classified as “various left” won 15.9% in the first round, but establishing just how much of that was actually a vote to the left of the PS would require detailed council-by-council analysis. In the Channel port city of Dieppe a ticket bringing together individual socialists and centre-right forces was called “various left” (as against the outgoing mayor’s PCF ticket, supported by the Left Party, Greens, other socialists and trade unionists). By contrast, in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, the “various left” ticket that won 15.1% on the first round was a coalition of the Greens, the Left Party and Ensemble! standing in competition with the PS-PCF Union of the Left.

In the Atlantic coastal town of Hendaye, in the French Basque Country (Iparralde), the left nationalist (abertzale) ticket (12.6%), a “neither right nor left” ticket (12.9%) and a ticket led by a “middle-of-the-road non-party businessman” (29%) were all classified as “various”!

Not that Valls’ department was being discriminatory—a mirror jumble of pseudo-categories was applied to right forces as well.

One sobering fact stands out through the confusionist reshuffling of political labels: forces affiliated to the Left Front, mainly the PCF, lost seven of the 28 towns of more than 30,000 that they controlled before the poll.

However, notwithstanding that cold shower, in many centres the left-of-PS vote held up in the first round and after March 30 the left-of-PS vote could boast a major gain—control of the alpine city of Grenoble. It was won from the SP (supported by the PCF) by the “Grenoble, City for Everyone” ticket, by 40% to 27%.

In Seine-Saint-Denis the Left Front (including the PCF) won the working-class and migrant suburb of Aubervilliers from the PS and held off an aggressive local PS offensive on Saint Denis itself by a razor-thin margin of 81 votes. The Left Front also won back the important outer-Paris working class and migrant centre of Montreuil (from the Greens).

In Paris proper, Danielle Simonnet took a seat for the Left Party on the 163-seat city council by scoring 13.7% in the 20th ward.

Plague of abstention—making the right look good

The main “winner” of the second round was abstention, which averaged 37.9%, the highest ever in a second round municipal poll. It was especially marked in working-class, migrant and poor communities. It averaged over 40% and often touched 50% (for example, 52.6% in Lille, 58.7% in Paris-region dormitory town Évry) and hit 80% in some voting stations. According to Left Party analysis, the increase was greatest in those centres which had voted 70% and over for François Hollande in the 2012 presidential poll.

The impact of abstention was strongly felt in Marseille, where it averaged 42.7% (over 50% in some working-class neighbourhoods), helping the FN to equal the number of left and Green councilors in the eight-ward, 101-member city council (at 20 each). It also affected traditional left suburban belts around Lyon.

Local exceptions of a decline in abstention from round one took place in a number of closely contested polls. For example, there were mobilisations to stop an FN victory—in Avignon, where abstention fell from 42.8% to 34.6% and in Perpignan, from 43% to 37.3%--after the FN won the first round in both cities. In Paris a 2% fall in abstention helped the PS-led ticket defeat the first-round leader the UMP, a scenario repeated in Strasbourg (where abstention fell from 50.3% to 45.3%).

Second round remobilisations spared the PS even greater disaster in Normandy, where it saved Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy, and the Channel port of Cherbourg (in Lower Normandy). In the north-western region of Lorraine (bordering on Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany) a three per cent fall in abstention help preserve the capital Metz, while a 6.5% fall enabled the PS to keep the FN out of Forbach (on the border with Germany).

Another point of high mobilisation (82% participation) took place in the contest for the Upper Corsica department capital of Bastia, where the Corsican nationalist candidate, supported by the UMP and an independent left list, ended the reign of the Zuccarelli dynasty (Radical Left Party, supported by the PCF).

On the whole, however, falls in abstention between the two rounds were the work more of the right than the left. They contributed to the defeat of PS-led tickets in Limoges, and ended dreams of the left retaking councils it had lost in 2008. For example, former PCF jewel-in-the-crown, Calais, is more solidly in UMP hands after this election, as is one-time PS stronghold Marseille.

The unprecedented degree of abstention in this poll counsels caution in interpreting rises and falls in the votes of competing coalitions. Most of all, it represents a rise in disillusionment of a growing part of the population with all present French political choices. According to specialist Anne Muxel, the most concerning aspect of the rise in abstention is its surge among a rising number of young people for whom politics per se has become alienating and irrelevant.

In particular, caution is necessary in interpreting the shift to the FN. Without underestimating the seriousness  of its gains, these still fall short of its 1995 high tide, when it also won Toulon (capital of the Var department).

The increased abstention rate—that is, the demobilisation of the left electorate--also made the UMP and UDI advance look better than it was. In Marseille, the triumphant UMP mayor, Jean-Claude Gardin, his support eaten away by abstention and the FN, actually scored 10,000 votes less on the first round than in the last council election in 2008.

Writing in Cherries, web-based journal of the Association of Uniting Communists (motto: “red, bitter-sweet”), Roger Martelli, a left historian specialising in municipal politics, said:Structural abstention reinforces the risks of volatility in ballots. The smaller the percentage of those voting, the greater the impact of any mobilisation in one direction or another. This time the left had been severely punished. All the left.”

By the same token the right’s “blue tide” and the FN’s “navy blue tide”[4] do not represent consolidated social and political realities. If—admittedly a big if—the demoralised parts of the left electorate could be re-inspired to participate in May’s European election and next year’s French regional poll, the tide would turn red and green.

As UMP leader François Fillon, rival of national president Jean-François Copé, warned: “We cannot draw any glory from this cry of anger or distress.”

Extent of PS disaster

It is hard to capture the full extent of the PS’s disaster— out of the 36,681 councils in metropolitan and “overseas” France it managed to win just 15 away from the right.

Before this poll, the left controlled 122 and the right 99 of France’s 221 towns with more than 30,000 inhabitants. Now the right controls 147 and the left 55, with the remainder divided between the extreme right and local forces who have yet to reveal their true colours.

While the total left and far left vote recovered slightly in the second round (to 41.6%), this was nowhere near sufficient to prevent the loss of five regional capitals as well as a swathe of departmental capitals and major towns  additional to those with over 100,000 inhabitants.

Of the 67 towns with over 30,000 inhabitants lost by the PS or its allies, 13 were departmental capitals[5] while others were crucial to maintaining left control of regional associations of councils (urban communities). As a result , even where it has held onto regional and departmental capitals, the PS looks set to relinquish control of regional council umbrella bodies around Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lille and Saint-Etienne.

This result also flows from the regional pattern of PS losses, most concentrated in greater Paris’s inner and outer rings[6], industrial and coal-mining areas in crisis[7]  and along the Mediterranean coast[8].

Yet there were no regions where the PS did not suffer.[9] In a number of departments composed of medium-size towns and controlled by the PS for years, there was also devastation, as in the Vendée department on the Atlantic coast (Loire Atlantique region), run since 1977, Gironde (capital Bordeaux), and the Rhône-Alpes department of Drôme. Another disaster zone was department of Puy-de-Dome in central France, a left bastion at least since World War 2. Here the PS was cut from holding 14 of the department’s 17 towns with more than 5000 inhabitants to five.

In a number of large towns (including Orleans, Limoges and Roubaix) the first-round PS vote fell by over 20% and in 14 others (including Clermont-Ferrand, Rennes, Dijon and Grenoble) by between 10% and 20%.

(The PS’s Loire-Atlantic wipe-out is certainly related to the government’s blind determination to go ahead with a new airport at Notre-Dame-Des-Landes, in the face of enormous local and France-wide opposition.)

Three examples epitomise the PS’s plight. After 60 years of PS rule the town of Niort (capital of Deux-Sèvres department) fell to the right; in working-class Marseille the PS candidate came in third on the first round (with 20%), behind the UMP and FN; and in Commentry (Allier department), which elected France’s first socialist mayor in 1882, the PS came third (16.2%), behind the right (47.1%) and an independent left list including the PCF and supported by the Left Party (25.7%). Commentry fell to the right in the second round.

Another aspect of the PS implosion was the success of dissident PS candidates who constructed tickets in opposition to dictates from Solferino Street. The most notable instance was in Montpellier, yet PS renegades of varying stripes also took Nevers (capital of Niévre department), the Channel port of Dunkerque (Nord)—in alliance with the UDI— the first ward of Lyon (running on a Left Front ticket) and Saint-Paul-les-Dax and Orthez in the Aquitania region.

In the absence of a clear united left alternative to the PS, popular disillusionment with the Hollande government dragged down the whole left-of-centre camp. For example, in industrial Clermont-Ferrand (capital of the central Auvergne region and of the Puy-de-Dôme department), the entire left, which in 2008 between the PS and the Revolutionary Communist League’s “100% Left” ticket managed 67% of the vote, could only harvest 47.8% at this poll. If the FN had not persisted into the second round, the UMP candidate (41.3%) might well have won this iconic industrial city (headquarters of Michelin).

In Limoges, capital of the neighbouring Limousin region and Haut Vienne department and PS for over 100 years, the UMP managed to take the council in spite of FN competition in the second round. This was because the PS ticket could only manage 30% on the first round (Left Front 14.2%). Once 5.9% of the first round FN vote (17%) crossed over to the UMP in the second round it was enough, when added to the whole of the “centre” candidate’s first round contribution (12.3%), to get the UMP across the line.

The abstention rate fell by 3.5% to 35.8%, but this didn’t help the left, whose total second round vote was less than the total left and far left vote on the first. Lack of enthusiasm for the PS (or complacency?) had done its work, with the entire left losing 12.6% support (7000 votes) between 2008 and 2014. At the same time, the FN, which did not contest Limoges in 2008, won 7500 extra votes.

PS (and PCF) losses would have been even greater if they hadn’t they hadn’t faced competing right and far-right tickets on the second round. The rivalry of the right created “triangular” contests that allowed the PS to survive in a number of important centres , such as Strasbourg ( capital of Alsace region), Metz (capital of Lorraine region), Besançon,( capital of Doubs department) and Le Mans (capital of Sarthe department), as well as a string of smaller towns.[10].

Right second-round divisions—mainly between the FN and the rest but sometimes between the UMS, UDI, and MoDem, also helped the PCF get out of jail in Venissieux (Rhône) and Vierzon (Cher department, in the Centre region). However, the problem with winning in this way is that the successful left ticket potentially faces a right social majority, as in Vierzon, where the PCF candidate won with 42.8% of the vote against a combined UMP-FN opposition of 57.2%.

The PS also avoided having to hand over the key of a series of important town halls by negotiating joint tickets to its left for the second round, as in Clermont-Ferrand. Such agreements, usually with the Left Front and the Greens, helped it save important centres such as Rouen, Rennes, Strasbourg, Dijon (capital of Bourgogne region), Nantes (capital of the Pays de la Loire region), port city Saint-Nazaire (Loire Atlantique), Brittany naval base city Brest, Besançon, Alençon (capital of Orne department in Lower Normandy) and Le Mans, as well as helping it rewin Avignon.

Yet, despite its desperate situation after the first round, the PS sometimes couldn’t shake off its arrogance towards forces to its left. In Paris, the PS-PCF, confident that Green support alone was enough to get them across the line, demanded that the Left Party agree beforehand to support the next six council budgets as a condition of inclusion on its second-round ticket (an undertaking not asked of the Greens). The Left Party refused—as they were expected to do.

In Toulouse, the PS-PCF Union of the Left refused to deal with Left Front, hoping they could win the second round with the support of Green voters alone. As a result, despite the leap in participation (up 5.4% on the first round) the UMP reclaimed the city they had lost in 2008 because just not enough left voters felt enthused or scared enough to come out in support of the PS. The gap was 4.1%, less than the Left Front vote on the first round (5.1%).

Asked by the Mediapart web site to summarise his response to the PS wipe-out, Henri Emanuelli, a longtime leader of its left currents, calling for an emergency congress, commented: “The PS no longer exists, neither in defence nor attack. It has become a sheep pen.”

François Kalfon, co-founder of the PS’s Popular Left current, said: “The government is not living on the same planet as the people who last supported it at the presidential election.”

The FN advance in perspective

How successful a municipal election did the FN actually have with its “Navy Blue” ticket,? The Le Pen dynasty’s operation certainly made gains in the struggle for hegemony within the right, strengthening its implantation in its Mediterranean-coast stronghholds, entering a swathe of traditional left councils for the first time with votes as high as 20%, as well as winning control of twelve towns.

In various regions where the FN had been strong for a decade or more its candidates replaced the mainstream right and centre-right as the main challengers to the PS and were often the main opponents to the UMP (as in Nice, Menton and Beausoleil in the Mediterranean Alpes-Maritimes department).

However, a rash of second-round useful voting within the right camp, combined with certain local mobilisations of “Stop the FN” sentiment, meant that the xenophobes generally failed to realise their ambition of targeted “iconic” victories (in chosen centres and against chosen opponents).

Its first-round advance was more clear-cut, symbolised by secretary-general Steeve Briois winning an absolute majority over the PS in the north-western industrial town of Hénin-Beaumont. The FN also won a record number of relative majorities on the first round, including in major southern cities like Avignon (30.4%), Perpignan (34.2%) and Béziers (44.9%). It strengthened it support base in the regions along the Mediterranean coast and in working-class communities devastated by industry closure, like the Moselle mining and steel basin and former PCF stronghold region Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It entered councils in working class and rural areas where it had previously been previously absent (such as in Brittany, which has seen protests against the government’s “ecological tax”).

In the first round the gains of the FN also retarded the advance of the UMP in a process that Marine Le Pen boasted as “the end of the bipolarisation of political life”. Where the UMP did not face opposition on its right flank, it grew at the expense of the PS (13% in Nanterre and 10% in Rennes). However, with the FN running, the first round spoils often went to it ,with the UMP making feeble gains or even outright losses—as in important centres like Montpellier (-3.4%), Toulouse (-4.6%), Dijon (-8%), Perpignan (-9.3%) and Grenoble (-7.2%).

The lesson was that the UMP’s pale imitation of the FN’s isolationist xenophobia simply encouraged many voters drawn to this “explanation” of poverty and social decline to vote for the original author and not the plagiarist. As a result, when the FN withdrew after the first round, as it sometimes did in regions of weaker implantation, any resultant mainstream right victories were more dependent on their FN contribution than in previous council polls.

Nonetheless, the final spoils were not as great as hoped, or as designed for in the FN’s “headline wins” strategy. Major centres where it was leading on the first round, like Perpignan, went to the mainstream right as the FN’s “star” candidates, including a third-generation Le Pen, all lost. Apart from Hénin-Beaumont, the closest the FN came to a second iconic victory was its failure by 30 votes to defeat the PCF mayor of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges in the outer Paris Val-de-Marne department. In this heated contest the remobilisation of the abstaining left vote—with a 9% fall in abstention on the second round—just managed to keep out the joint FN-UDI ticket.

The FN and its allies won control of 12 towns. In addition to Hénin-Beaumont , seven were in its Mediterranean “heartland” (Beaucaire, Cogolin, Le Luc, Le Pontet , Fréjus, Béziers and Camaret-sur-Aigües), one in the outer Paris department of Yvelines (Mantes-la-Ville, taken from the PS), one in Aisne department in the province of Picardy (Villers-Cotterêts), one in the crisis-stricken steel-producing department of Moselle (Hayange, won with a candidate who had been a union delegate with the General Confederation of Labour) and one in Marseille’s seventh sector.

This last was the FN biggest gain, placing 155,000 peoples in Marseille’s areas of greatest unemployment and social degradation under the control of the xenophobes.

Most of these wins were possible because of intra-right divisions in three-way and four-way contests, meaning that the FN still has a distance to travel before creating any real social majorities in the towns under its control. Nonetheless, after this election the FN will have 1546 councillors in towns of more than 1000 inhabitants, giving the organisation greater institutional presence across the whole of France. Nicolas Bay, the coordinator of its council elections campaign, summed up its gains like this: “Now that our fellow countrymen have massively rejected the PS and government policy, the European elections will allow us to bring together the French on an alternative path to the ultra-liberal globalism defended by the “UMPS” system and to make the National Front the major French political force on the evening of May 25.”

To date, the success of the FN in working-class and poor rural zones has represented a protest vote against the decline in the job opportunities and public services that were often provided by PS and PCF councils. Now, however, matters are beginning to reach a stage where, in the absence of a credible left alternative, that protest increasingly threatens toturn more and more into active conviction and solider implantation.

Left opposition vote

The FN’s results would not have been seemed half so great if the anti-government left—centred on the Left Front but including other forces –had managed a united campaign and a single,  clear anti-austerity message. Yet, despite this handicap, the result for independent left lists was considerably better than mainstream media silence, combined with massive airtime for the FN, indicated.

In its analysis of the result of the first round the Left Party noted that the 600  left tickets  not involving the PS won 11.43% of the vote, and that when these tickets included the EELV (in 82 lists) that average rose to 15.3%.

308 of the tickets passed the 10% barrier to participation in the second round, as against 316 of the FN’s 594 tickets. On the first round they won 2036 councilor positions, as opposed to 473 for the FN.

Particularly noteworthy was the success of tickets involving the Greens, highlighted by the campaign in the alpine city of Grenoble, where a Greens-Left Party-Ensemble alliance scored 29% as against the PS-PCF’s 25%. This result compared to the 15% vote for the Greens alone in the 2008 poll.

Grenoble saw a four-way battle to the death in the second round, with local PS MP Olivier Véran setting the tone with this comment on the winners of round one: “This improbable mélange will be dangerous for Grenoble’s ecosystem.” The PS paid a heavy price for this sectarianism, increasing its vote by only 2.1% while the Greens-Left Party-Ensemble ticket added 11%.

The Left Party’s Élisa Martin, number two on the list, said of the Grenoble result: “Everything we have said about the need to reinvent the left is on the way to being embodied in this result. Our result is important for the left and, I would say, even for France.”

What was the result for those cities and towns where the PCF hitched themselves to the PS in Union of the Left tickets? When asked at a press conference after the first round if he regretted this choice, PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent commented: “We avoided any penalty. There’s a lot of talk about the one mayoralty won on Sunday by the FN. Yet 37 communist mayors were elected on Sunday night and nobody talks about that…What is strikingly fair about this result is that the punishment handed out to the left is not blind, because it is where we implement effective municipal policies, either with teams led directly by communists or at times even with socialist mayors, that there are results that run against the general punishment.”

This comment was hopeful even about the first round, given that in a town like Perpignan—where the PCF has never had a chance to show how it might make a difference to local government—the decision to maintain “left unity” against the right saw the Union of the Left vote fall from 24% to 11%. A similar decline (25.8% to 11.8%) took place in the Cher department town of Saint-Armand-Montron.

After the second round, however, it was undeniable that, while losing less than the PS, the PCF was suffering from its ties with the ruling party and the pattern of its council losses going back to 1979 wasn’t going to be reversed in 2014. Instead of making hoped-for gains the party was usually holding on or retreating. Only one of ten potential wins mentioned by Laurent in a pre-election letter to the PCF membership (Thiers, in Puy-de-Dôme) was actually realised as the party lost around 25% of its mayors in towns of more than 3500 inhabitants.

While the PCF held onto important centres, like Channel port Dieppe and Vierzon, as well as a host of smaller towns it also experienced serious losses. For example, in the outer Paris Val-de-Marne department the PCF lost two of its twelve towns, the PS one of eight and the Left Party its only town, while the UMP, UDI and MoDem went from holding 22 to 26. The Greens held on to their two towns.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, the PCF took back the major working-class outer-Paris towns of Aubervilliers (from the PS) and Montreuil (from the Greens), just held off a vicious PS campaign for Saint-Denis proper, but lost Bagnolet and Sevran (to the PS), capital Bobigny (to the UDI), Le Blanc-Mesnil (to the UMP), and Saint-Ouen, Villejuif and Villepinte (to various alliances of the right).

In Aulnay-sous-Bois, hurt by the closure of the PSA (Peugeot) factory, the UMP won with over 60% of the vote. For the first time the right has a majority of towns (21-19) in France’s reddest department. Abstention across the department averaged a telling 48.9% on the deciding rounds.

In the Mediterranean department of Bouches-des-Rhône, the PCF’s 49-year-long administration of Aubagne, the fifth largest town, came to an end at the hands of the right. A similar painful loss befell the party in Mediterranean coastal Sète (Herault).

There were further uncompensated PCF loses in Brittany (eight) and in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region (19) where the hoped-for reconquest of Calais itself also failed.

Working out the vote for the Left Front (with or without the PCF, with or without the Greens and NPA) would require a council-by-council analysis, for reasons already mentioned. Roger Martelli has made the following calculation: “Taking into account the 607 councils of more than 1000 inhabitants where the Left Front is present as a whole or via some of its affiliates, the Left Front wins nearly 11% of the votes cast, as opposed to 16% for so-called “union of the left” tickets, 13.7% for socialist or “various left” tickets, and 2.6% for the Greens.”

However, in France’s 20 largest cities Left Front lists got between 4.5% and 7.5%, with the exception of the two centres where there was an alliance with the Greens (Rennes, 15.1% and Grenoble, 28%). By comparison, in the 2012 presidential poll the Left Front vote was between 11% and 17% (exception: Nice, at 9%).

Martelli summarises the Left Front vote as “not at all unworthy but inadequate” and “globally, a retreat on the 2012 presidential election”, adding that “the Front has been unable to capitalise on the interesting dynamic of the past two years [of PS government].”

Why this result? While the PCF is yet to produce its own analysis of the result the general impact of its decision to allow local branches to run with the PS clearly seems to have been negative, undercutting the image of the Left Front as clear and resolute opposition to the status quo of UMP-PS austerity. For Martelli, the Left Front’s losses “are particularly significant in the cities where the PCF chose an alliance with the PS, as in Paris, Toulouse or Nantes.”

Partial analysis for the Val-de-Marne by Left Party general secretary François Cocq supports this conclusion with regards to smaller towns. Cocq’s figures show that where PCF candidates were backed by the PS from the first round their support was dragged down by the association, with the PCF losing between 23% and 30% compared to the 2008 council poll. By contrast, wherever the PCF stood with other left forces against the PS its vote, or that of the Left Front, increased or was maintained.

The lesson for Cocq is clear: “Wherever tickets were in common with the PS, the left was weakened and the right placed in a position of threat, even of winning”. The mobilisation of the left vote against the right on the second round was also “more complicated to carry out when the first round couldn’t be an occasion to to make a contrast between the different left organisations.”

What lessons?

The PCF’s choice therefore seems to lie at the root of the Left Front’s difficulties in using this election to build on the success of 2012. It reduced the political visibility of the Front at the same time as confusing its support base. According to figures cited by Martelli, in contests for councils of towns with more than 1000 inhabitants only 9% had official Left Front lists, as against 15% for the PS alone, 14% for Union of the Left lists and a massive 56% for “various left”:

The impact on many left activists was summed up in this comment on the PCF’s short statement after the second round:

In the presidential elections everything was clear, now it’s a catastrophe. Towns like mine, Arles, have seen a Left Party-Greens-NPA list confront and denounce the outgoing PS-PCF list, yet the mayor supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Often the ecologists are opposed to the PCF for being with the PS. JLM [Mélenchon] criticises the PCF-PS alliance, but supports the operetta-style ecologists who are part of the government that rules over us. Should I just stay home next time? Please put some order into all of this!

Another PCF militant responded to his party’s declaration after round one with these words:

Don’t you see who’s voting for the FN? Today, it’s a lot of former left voters, of people in a miserable situation who see no hope in a PS that scorns them nor in the PCF when it seems to be an extension of that PS. How can we ally ourselves to a party that supports a president who has stated that the loss of the working class electorate matters little to him and that communists don’t exist?

It is hard to imagine any good deeds done by PCF councilors compensating for the anger and frustration these comments reveal. Yet, despite this, the election also saw very positive positive experiences with the potential to help activists overcome disunity and move forward. Besides the Grenoble win, which opens the gate to showing what a left-green coalition can achieve in a city of half a million, a number of these should be registered. They include:

  •        The Left Party-Greens-Ensemble! “Change The Town!” ticket in Breton capital Rennes (15.1% in the first round), with its detailed red-green program developed through citizens’ forums, decision-making by consensus and a 300-strong support committee. This coalition will continue despite differences over whether to participate in running the newly elected PS-PCF council (a position supported by the Greens but not the other components of “Change The Town!”);

  •        The “Let’s Dare, Poitiers” ticket (Greens-Left Front without PCF-NPA), with over 15% on both rounds, and a campaigning approach against nuclear energy and racism;

  •         The 18% Left Front scores in Manuel Valls’ town Évry and against Hollande minister Benoit Hamon;

  •         The success of the Greens- Left Front list in right-dominated Nîmes, where it pushed the PS into fourth place on the second round;

  •         Notable second-round gains (from 21% to 27%) in Bougenais, town at the centre of the protest against the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport proposal;

  •         The united Left Front campaigns that kept Dieppe for the left-of-PS and won back Aubervilles and Montreuil;

  •         The 31.3% achieved in Sévran (Seine-Saint-Denise), where the local PCF voted to break with the PS and create a list that drew together all local Left Front affiliates, as well as the Greens, NPA and republicans and to whose decision-making meetings all citizens were invited and urged to contribute.

  •         The creation by Left Front forces, led by the PCF, of the Local Committee for Citizen Initiative (CLIC) in Albi (capital of Midi-Pyrénées department of Tarn), with the goal of involving people in their neighbourhoods in the creation of policy. After winning 10.4% on the first round CLIC fused with the Greens (8%) for the second, where the final result was 15.4%. The Greens and CLIC now work together.

No doubt, other positive experiences will surface in French left media as the lessons of the election continue to be discussed.

Conclusion—where now for the Left Front?

Before this election, the PCF leadership faced a difficult decision: should it try to maintain its local government presence, largely won in Union of the Left alliances with the PS, going back to 1965? Or should it use the election campaign to build on the gains of the 2012 Left Front campaign, strengthening the organised presence of the Front at the local level?

Choosing the second option would have pitched the leadership into an open fight with many of its mayors and councilors, elected on PS-PCF tickets and carrying out local work in the framework set by that collaboration—often for decades.

In the end, the leadership passed the decision on to local PCF branches, where the competing alliance options involved produced often acrimonious clashes, setting councilors and other local leaders against branch activists keen to build up the Left Front. In several cases branch votes were appealed to the national level.

Yet the political price of that procedure was high—it produced a 50:50 division over alliances in towns with over 20,0000 inhabitants, disorientation within the party’s ranks and across the broader left, and helped the FN pose as the only real opponents of “the system”. It also raised the question of what the PCF’s council work—declining in influence for years in a context of steadily rising abstention—was exactly for, and how it should fit with its overall strategy, especially in a context of increasing financial starvation of local government.

On the other hand, had the decision been taken to have single Left Front council tickets (in towns of over 20,000, as proposed by the Left Party), PCF influence in local government administration would have been reduced to some degree or other, at least in the short term. It would have probably lost councilor numbers, and definitely been booted out of positions of responsibility in any town where the PS could have survived without it. It would have been “reduced” to the position of left opposition in PS-run councils (as has happened in Sévran).

However, the party would also have had to engage earlier with the inevitable question of what model of council work the Left Front as a whole should pursue, forcing in the process a reckoning with Union of the Left methods and traditions, and potentially setting the grounds for a rebirth of local government work in a Left Front framework.

In the aftermath of March 30, a comment piece by Patrick Le Hyaric, editor of L’Humanité and member of the European parliament, stated that the level of abstention “is testimony to the level of distrust, of fed-upness, of disillusionment that pervades the country. It is the bearer of a crisis of politics, or rather of a political crisis with serious consequences.”

Clearly, there is no hope of turning around that mood without building an inspiring, credible and truly mass alternative to the parties of austerity and the FN—something the Left Front was beginning to do in 2012. In the rubble of disaster of these municipal elections some microcosms of such an alternative emerge have become visible. They follow a similar pattern, involving anti-austerity and pro-environment activists, affiliated or unaffiliated, from a wide range of left and progressive backgrounds, but united by th commitment to fight against austerity and its parties and for sustainable development and social justice.

Back on February 19, PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent criticised the Greens-Left Party alliance in Grenoble as a “serious mistake”, contrasting it the PCF’s “choice of clarity in support of [local PCF ticket leader] Patrice Voir. We shall be a point of support for a future majority in Grenoble, and be able to get our ideas accepted.”

Will the experience of Grenoble and of the whole election now lead to a PCF rethink? Will the Greens, who have refused to join the new government of Manuel Valls, now look at how Grenoble and other alliance experiences could become national? After its experiences in this campaign will the NPA adopt a more unitary orientation to the Left Front?

The chances of reversing the tide of retreat revealed by France’s 2014 municipal election will greatly depend on the answers to such questions.

[Dick Nichols is Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

Notes

[1] Under the French two-round voting system as applied in municipal elections for towns with more than 1000 inhabitants, if a ticket wins a majority on the first round, it takes 50% of the council seats being contested. The other seats are shared proportionally among all other tickets winning more than 5% of the total vote, with the winning ticket also taking its proportional share of these seats. The result is that winning tickets get a large “winners’ bonus”, composed of half the seats to be decided, plus its proportional share of the other half.

If no ticket wins an absolute majority, a second round is held. Tickets must achieve at least 10% of the vote in the first round to be eligible to stand in the second round. A ticket that meets this requirement is free to stand in the second round in its own name or to negotiate new ticket with any other ticket that stood in the first round. This means in practice that for the second round tickets that won less than 10% on the first round can merge with tickets that won more than 10%.

A ticket can also withdraw and, if it so decides, indicate its voting preference for the second round to its first-round supporters. If three or more tickets stand in the second round, the winner often scores less than 50% of the total vote.

The same principle of seat allocation applies as for first round wins.

All tickets must be 50% male-female, with male and female candidates alternating.

In towns with less than 1000 inhabitants, the quota for election to a seat is 20% and there is no gender equality requirement for tickets.

With the exception of Paris, Marseille and Lyon, which have ward-based representation, cities and towns form one electoral district.

AN EXAMPLE: ALBI (TARN DEPARTMENT)

Number of council seats: 43 (as stipulated for towns of between 40,000 and 49,999 inhabitants)

FIRST ROUND

Abstention: 37.1%

Various right 28.28% (5567 votes)

Union of the Left (PS and others) 20.58% (4051 votes)

Various right 19.74% (3887 votes)

National Front 13.04% (2568 votes)

Left Front 10.38% (2043 votes)

Greens 7.98% (1572 votes)

No seats assigned as no ticket wins over 50%

BETWEEN ROUNDS

1.    Green vote below 10% threshhold. Greens combine with Left Front ticket

2.    Two various right tickets combine

3.    National Front stays in for second round

SECOND ROUND

Abstention: 36.45%

Various right 46.07% (9041 votes) wins 32 seats (22 plus 46% of 21)

Union of the Left 24.91% (4888 votes) wins 5 seats (24.91% of 21)

Left Front 15.43% (3027 votes) wins 3 seats (15.43% of 21)

National Front 13.59% (2667 votes)wins  3 seats (13.59% of 21)

The mayor, nearly always the leader of the wining ticket, is elected by the councillors at the first meeting after the poll

[2] In France senators are elected indirectly, by a combination of local and regional councilors and deputies (150,000 electors in all). The more local councilors a party wins, the greater its chance of having senators elected.

[3] Full details are not yet available.

[4] A pun on Marine Le Pen’s first name. Navy blue in French is bleu marine.

[5] Carcassonne (Aude), Quimper (Finistère), Evreaux (Eure), Charleville-Mézières (Ardennes), Laval (Mayenne), Belfort (Territory of Belfort), La Roche-sur-Yon (Vendée), Nevers (Nievre), Niort (Deux Sèvres), Périgueux (Dordogne), Gap (Hautes Alpes, lost by the PRG), Anglet (Pyrénées Atlantiques), Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis, lost by the PCF) and Badia (Upper Corsica, lost by the PRG).

[6] These were the left’s losses of towns of over 30,000 inhabitants in the greater Parisian region: Montigny-le-Bretonneux, Poissy and Conflans-Saint-Honorine (Yvelines), Argenteuil (Val-d’Oise), Palaiseau and Viry-Chatillion (Évry), Colombes, Clamart and Asnières-sur-Seine (Hauts-de-Seine), Bobigny, Saint-Ouen, Le Blanc Mesnil, Villepinte, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Livry-Gargan and Épinay-sur-Seine (Seine-Saint-Denis), Villejuif and L'Haÿ-les-Roses (Val-de-Marne), as well as Chelle (in the neighbouring Seine-et.Marne department).

[7] For example, PS-led tickets lost the following towns of over 30,000 inhabitants in the mining Nord-Pas-de-Calais region: Arras, Hénin-Beaumont (Pas-de-Calais), Tourcoing, Roubaix and Maubeuge (Nord).

[8] Towns over 30,000 inhabitants lost, in addition to the loss of regional capital Montpellier and departmental capital Carcassonne, were Narbonne (Aude), Salon-de-Provence and Aubagne (Bouches-du-Rhône).

[9] Other towns of over 30,000 inhabitants lost included Charleville-Mézières (Ardennes), Soissons (Aisne), Joué-les-Tours (Indre-et-Loire), Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire), Roanne and Saint-Chamond (Loire), Brive-la-Gaillarde (Corrèze), Pessac and Talence (Gironde) and Romans-sur-Isère (Drôme).

[10] Including Dax (Landes), Cognac (Charente), Apt (Vaucluse), Libourne (Gironde) and Villeurbanne, Bron and Corbas (Rhône).

Comments

French elections

Really interesting article, thank you. It will be interesting to see how the UK elections go in May and whether there is any left resurgence.

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