France: Sarkozy facing defeat as polarised electorate leans left

Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

By Dick Nichols

April 30, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- The results of April 22 first round of the presidential elections in France directed a powerful spotlight on a society polarised by  economic crisis and the austerity regime of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)  government.

As in the 2002 presidential poll, candidates to the left of the Socialist Party (SP), including Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV), won more than 15% of the vote, while the xenophobic National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen registered its highest vote ever—17.9% (up 7.5% from the 2007 presidential poll).

However, unlike the 2002 contest, this far-left vote did not come at the expense of the SP (which in 2002 was beaten into third place by the FN). This time the SP’s François Hollande took first place, with 28.6% of the vote (up 2.8% from 2007).

Support for Sarkozy fell by 4% to 27.2%, making him the first incumbent not to lead on the first round since Fifth Republic presidential polls began in 1965. However, this loss—basically of FN voters Sarkozy had seduced in the 2007 presidential contest—was partially offset by gains from François Bayrou, of the centrist Movement for Democracy (MoDem).

Bayrou was the biggest loser on April 22. As 3.5 million MoDem voters deserted left and right, Bayrou’s support more than halved (from 18.6% to 9.1%). For the SP, some of those desertions helped counteract its own losses to the Front de Gauche (FG, Left Front) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (11.1%).

The five-point message of former education minister Bayrou—urgent action to reduce budget deficits (including acceptance of draconian European Union fiscal rules), “back-to-basics” education reform, “strong development” of France’s productive apparatus, morality in public life and electoral reform—proved a lead balloon with an angry and disillusioned electorate.

In the midst of a recession, with nearly 4 million unemployed or underemployed, why vote for someone who would cut back public services more than Sarkozy?

The polarisation revealed by the election has a clear tilt to the left.

In 2007, the entire vote for right candidates (including Bayrou) was 23.3 million. In this poll the right vote has fallen to 19.6 million, 16% less. In 2007, the total left vote (including SP and Green candidates) was 13.4 million. In 2012, it is 15.7 million, 17% more.

As for the vote to the left of the SP and EELV, in 2007 these candidates received 3.3 million votes. This time their vote has risen to 4.6 million, a 39% increase.

Left Front vote

As the middle ground shrank the biggest percentage gain went to FG candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The FG vote was the highest for a candidate to the left of the SP since 1981, when George Marchais of the French Communist Party (PCF) won 15.4%. The FG was also responsible for three-quarters of the increase in the total left vote.

The FG vote was 9.2% greater than for the PCF in 2007 (1.9%), and included voters who had supported Trotskyist candidates Olivier Besnacenot (Revolutionary Communist League, LCR) and Arlette Laguiller, Workers Struggle, LO) in 2007. It also attracted many traditional SP voters, including former PCFers who had become SP voters over the years.

The Left Front’s gains were evenly spread across the country. Highest support came in the greater Paris “red belt” department—French administrative district—of Seine-Saint Denis (17%).

Other high points were Val-de-Marne (14%), also in the Paris outer suburbs, the Pyrenean départments of Ariege (16.9%) and Hautes-Pyrenees (15.2), the Alpine départments of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (15.2%) and Hautes-Alpes (14%), and the central départments of Haute-Vienne (14.4%), Lot (14.4%) and Puy-de-Dôme (14%).

Mélenchon’s electorate as a European MP covers the Pyrenean and Alpine areas, while a number of the central départments cover rural areas with a radical traditions going back to the World War II Resistance.

Mélenchon came in third in half of the France’s 20 biggest cities (with populations over 140,000). The FG scored over 10% in 70 and more than 13% in 20 of France’s 101 départments. It also scored well in big towns without a strong PCF tradition, reaching over 15% in Grenoble, Toulouse, Lille, Besançon and Montpellier.

However, the FG vote also turned out to be at the lower end of opinion poll predictions (between 11% and 17% over the final month of the campaign). This reflected the success of a concerted SP campaign for a “useful” vote on the left, a frenzied operation in which the “nightmare” of 2002 (when the SP candidate Lionel Jospin failed to reach the second round) played the key role.

According to opinion poll IFOP, 30% of those who eventually voted PS had considered whether to vote PG before finally deciding for Hollande. If the FG had convinced all these voters to support it the party’s score would have reached 19.7%.

Compared to the FG, the pickings for the other left candidates, Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and Natalie Arthaud of LO, were thin—1.4 million votes (4%) less than in 2007 and back to the score of the far left in 1981.

While Poutou was an engaging candidate, reflected in the greater NPA vote than LO’s, the question to be answered is whether the political ground of the NPA campaign—grouping together “the left of the left” against any thought of alliance with the SP—prevents winning over disillusioned SP voters.

National Front vote

The next biggest winner on April 22 was the FN, with an increase of 2.6 million votes, 70% won back from the UMP. The FN scored 20% or more in 11 out of 23 regions and 43 out of 101 departments.

In the départment of Gard, on the Mediterranean coast, the FN won the first-round contest. It came second in three regions and very close in another two, including the working-class Nord-Pas de Calais, where its vote reached 35%-40% in the mining regions.

The FN’s gains came most of all in poorer suburban and rural areas which had voted UMP in 2007, while the poshest neighbourhoods stuck with Sarkozy.

The FN consolidated its support in its heartland along the Mediterranean coast, and created a new crescent of support in 20 départments along France’s north-eastern border with Germany, Luxemburg and Belgium—sites of factory closures and industrial “reconstruction”.

From all over “forgotten” France the story was the same. In Meurthe-et-Moselle, old industrial country on the Luxemburg border, the former steel town of Gandrange registered an FN vote of 28.2%, while in nearby Florange, whose blast furnaces are under threat, the FN vote reached 29.6%

In small towns and villages the FN vote often exceeded 40%, supported by older working-class workers who feel abandoned by the SP.

The FN also marked advances in areas in rural France known for their unquestioning loyalty to the UMP. In the Orne region of Lower Normandy the FN scored between 30% and 40% of the vote. The mayor of Beaulieu explained why to Le Monde, citing “a kind of anguish in the rural world. People feel abandoned by the public services. There are eight rural employers here. People there used to vote for Sarkozy with their eyes shut. Now 75% of them have gone over to the FN.”

Another region in which the FN made strong gains was southern Corsica, where it was once marginalised by Corsican national sentiment. In this election the FN came in second behind Sarkozy on the back of a campaign supporting local fishing and opposing illegal immigration from northern Africa.

While the FN message was as xenophobic as ever—and Le Pen exploited the tragic Toulouse shootings to the hilt—it would not have won as much support as it did without combining racist alarmism against Islam with ferocious attacks on the political establishment and Europe and the euro.

A return to the French franc, Le Pen argued, would allow economic revival and job creation and fund the reopening of public services in abandoned and impoverished rural and outer suburban France.

Campaign dynamic

But did this high score for the FN in many working-class and poor neighbourhoods come at the expense of the FG? Mélenchon addressed this question in an April 25 election analysis on his blog, drawing the conclusion that “where the FN progresses the FG also progresses” and that this dynamic “reflects a radicalisation in society”.

For the FG leader, working-class areas are “far from handing themselves to Marine Le Pen. Thus, at Petit-Couronne in Seine-Maritime where the closure of the Petroplus petrol refinery threatens 900 workers and which all presidential candidates visited,  Sarkozy lost 249 votes, Hollande won 114, Le Pen 436 and the  FG 693 … an example showing the space the FG can carve out for itself in the face of the right.

“The two départements where Sarkozy had his worse scores—la Seine-Saint-Denis and l’Ariège—are also where the FG had its best results... At Audincourt, where 3000 workers work on the sites of PSA Sochaux-Montbéliard, Sarkozy lost 439 votes and Marine Le Pen won 376, while we won 740! The result is that we are well on the way to replacing the traditional left.”

On a larger scale, the FG proved the dynamic force in the campaign that the other parties had to react to. Hollande’s campaign against the FG was that a FG vote was wasted in the fight against Sarkozy; Sarkozy’s campaign against Hollande was that a vote for the SP was effectively a vote for the FG; Le Pen attacked Mélenchon as unpatriotic,  cosmopolitan and hostage to “communism”.

At the same time, the FG campaign was alone in countering the FN—Sarkozy spent much of his campaign courting the FN while Hollande barely mentioned the far-right threat.

Now what?

Is a Hollande victory now certain? Even though opinion polls predict a Hollande win, Mélenchon stresses that it is critical that Sarkozy be defeated by popular mobilisation, beginning with a massive, united May Day demonstration.

Moreover, the few progressive proposals in Hollande’s very mild 60-point plan for government—60,000 teaching jobs, a renegotiation of the European fiscal pact and steeper taxation of the rich—are already being pooh-poohed as impractical electioneering by the European powers-that-be.

If they are to have any chance of implementation, the mass mobilisations that marked the FG’s election campaign will have to continue.

Concerned that between 15%-20% of FG voters might abstain in the second round the FG leader argues that “the citizen´s revolution is best fed by victory over adversaries than the opposite. Defeating Sarkozy is our urgent task and will provide oxygen to social action in our country, that’s for sure… All this is necessary so that what we have begun to build can develop further. But it’s also what the left in the whole of Europe expects of us—to break up the present leadership which rightly goes under the name of “Merkozy “.

Mobilising to defeat Sarkozy will also be an important next step in the crucial struggle to break the growing influence of the FN in working-class and poor rural France.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Australia's leading socialist newspaper, Green Left Weekly.]