March 31, 2014 7:08 pm

Hollande’s drubbing is not a blank cheque for the right

The president’s opponents should not draw too much electoral comfort, writes François Heisbourg
French President Francois Hollande smiles at the Elysee Palace on March 26, 2014, in Paris, after the weekly cabinet meeting. AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARDALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Traditionally, French municipal elections give the electorate an opportunity to let off steam against the incumbent government in a first round that is often followed by a correction in the run-off. This time it was different: the governing Socialists lost historical strongholds by the dozen, as the second round amplified the groundswell of the first. Never, since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, had municipal elections led to such a bérézina, a French byword for defeat taken from the Belarusian river in which much of Napoleon’s Grande Armée drowned in 1812.

The outcome is a result of President François Hollande’s failure of leadership. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard-left politician, had derided him as a paddleboat skipper during the presidential elections: the electorate clearly shares that opinion. Mr Hollande’s solemnly repeated promise to bring down unemployment by the end of 2013 has damaged him deeply. Between the two rounds of voting came the announcement that unemployment had risen yet again, by more than 30,000 in February.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider Sunday’s vote a blank cheque for the mainstream right. We saw the lowest participation rate ever: rightwing voters did not flock to the polling booths; their victory was mostly the result of Mr Hollande’s erstwhile supporters refusing to show up. The lack of inspiring policy alternatives from the centre right, the jockeying for position between its contending leaders, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s questionable economic record, posed no problem. They will matter down the road.

Nor did the National Front (FN) break out of its political isolation. It won just a dozen towns (out of more than 900 municipalities with a population of 10,000 or more). Mainstream parties were encouraged to avoid striking deals with the extreme right by opinion polls demonstrating the majority’s refusal to consider the FN as a democratic party. However, in the forthcoming European parliamentary elections, the glass ceiling may be shattered in what many voters will consider (wrongly) a no-stakes contest.

Mr Hollande’s options are unappealing. The results of the election and opinion polls showed a demand (including among a majority of Socialist voters) for a change of prime minister and cabinet. Failure to act on this would have convinced voters that the president has a tin ear. Yet following Monday’s reshuffle, his new government – albeit headed by as forceful and popular a personality as Manuel Valls, the former minister of interior from the right of the party – will be damaged in the event of a poor result for the Socialists in the European elections. Nor will “cohabitation” be easy between this prime minister with presidential ambitions of his own and a politically weak but institutionally powerful president. This combination may work only if they pursue a shared economic and social policy. If that policy is a mere extension of the current low-growth mixture of high household taxation, recently announced spending cuts and other supply-side measures, the surly mood of the country is unlikely to improve.

Imitating Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi’s disregard for the EU’s stability pact could bring France out of this political and social dead end. This is unlikely to happen because the country’s leaders greatly fear the markets’ reaction to such a course. But the French may underestimate their leeway. After all, on Monday the spread between French Treasuries and German Bunds fell yet again, despite the uncertainty created by the election results and the disclosure of a worse than expected budget deficit for 2013. Still, having plumped for supply-side reforms in January, Mr Hollande could legitimately fear creating more not less confusion by changing tack yet again. More fundamentally, he is no Renzi, in terms of inclination or character, and that is what counts – though Mr Valls could be.

Mr Hollande will soldier on, trying to lead the country while enduring the lowest level of public trust since the 1950s, in the hope that events will intervene in his favour. In the interval he will, like Mr Sarkozy but more so, lose every election between now and the end of his term while trying to avoid his predecessor’s ultimate defeat. But in what state will the country find itself in 2017?

The writer is author of ‘La Fin du Rêve Européen’

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