First Round, First Headaches

Last night’s long-awaited first round of the French legislative elections has produced a largely expected result. Now that the dust has settled, we can begin to look at the results in more detail, and ultimately to assess their meaning. In particular, the Monday morning quarterbacking has begun on what the results of the first round will mean for the all-important second-round this coming Sunday.

On the whole the Socialist party woke up yesterday morning with smiles on their faces. Aside from an unfortunate local difficulty in La Rochelle, where format Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royale finds herself in the second round up against a socialist dissident, who objected to her being parachuted into the normally safe seat, all of the leading lights of the party have done well. In particular no minister standing for Parliament (16 out of the 33 were in the running) find themselves in danger of losing to the opposition in the next round, which is important as the Prime Minister had decreed that any losing minister would have to resign from government. Six ministers were even elected outright in the first-round, including the Prime Minister himself, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Political commentators are however deeply concerned over the low turnout of 57%. It is unsurprising that, given the almost absent campaign, general voter fatigue and confused political strategies (not to mention dreadful weather in most of the country), voters did not turn up at the polls en masse. Whilst a figure of 57% may seem fairly respectable in many other democracies, it has got the French worried, as it is a historic low point. The flipside to the low turnout is of course the elimination of many possible triangulations in the second round. The complex rules exclude any candidates in the second round unless they score at least 12.5% of all registered voters in the constituency. This has excluded many third placed Front National candidates for making it into the run-off: exactly what the complex rule is designed to do.

Overall the governments’ supporting parties, led by the Socialists, scored a respectable 45% of the vote. The UMP and its now tiny allies could muster 34%. The FN scored a respectable 14%, with a number of its candidates in first place going into the second round, including Marine Le Pen who defeated Jean-Luc Melenchon in the Henin-Beaumont constituency where he had sought to knock her out politically for good. Instead she appears to have destroyed whatever momentum he had left after a weaker than expected showing in the Presidential race. She now faces off against a Socialist candidate in the second round, who is likely to beat her.

The UMP has been consoling itself that there was no wave of support in favour of the Socialists, as had been announced. In fact, no one had expected such a wave, least of all the Socialists. However the UMP is busy minimising the damage to its own position, and is heartened that it will not at least be destroyed as a parliamentary force. This is excellent news for current party head, Jean-François Copé, who wants to take full control of the party machine in preparation for the presidency in 2017.

Martine Aubry, head of the Socialist party, who led the election campaign with the Prime Minister, expected to find her position strengthened by the results which, whilst generally in line with expectations, have delighted the faithful in the Northwest and Southwest. It is unlikely however that the government will be readjusted to take account of these election results. Suggestions have ranged from the entry of one or two Communist ministers (now unlikely given that the Socialists, the Greens and the Radicals are on target to secure an absolute majority of their own in the second round) to some kind of reshuffling that would see Aubry join the government. The fact that no ministers are likely to lose in the second round, and therefore resign from government, means that no reshuffle is likely to be needed, and Ayrault might be tempted not to try and fix the machine that is not apparently broken. Aubry’s position is also under fire from some quarters due to the messy way that preparing for the second round has begun this week. A number of party candidates who are facing triangular races in the second round have been instructed by Aubry to stand aside to avoid the risk of allowing an FN candidate a shot at election. Aubry has also asked the dissident candidate facing off against Royal to back down. They have ignored her and are likely to confirm their candidacies before tonight’s deadline. Aubry’s authority has therefore be challenged and looks weak.

Be that as it may, going into the second round, there is little indication that the socialist are changing tactic. A Paris rally is planned for Wednesday night, but it is unlikely to garner media interest aside from the rolling 24-hour news channels. By in large, the parties have realised that the French have tuned out, and whilst turnout is likely to grow a few points, there will be no sudden rush to the polls even if the stakes have a greatly simplified thanks to the reduction of candidates down to two or three in the remaining constituencies. What has proved most interesting about this legislative election so far is how English it has seemed: rather than a national campaign about national issues it has become instead a series of local debates about highly localised problems. That may be more in-line with the role of a local constituency deputy, who whilst representing national interests must also balance constituency ones, however it of course makes it much harder for the national media to report on. My own local candidates (the 10th district of Seine et Marne – strongly Socialist) have been addressing issues in relation to social housing rather than France’s place in Europe, but then again the former is more likely to appeal than the latter in most constituencies.

And so France waits one more week, paralysed whilst the government is busy campaigning and Parliament is still dissolved, despite the fact of the next election result is more than likely a foregone conclusion – a slim but absolute majority for the government. Given this paralysis, there are more voices questioning the timetable of the presidential and legislative collections. France has in effect squandered one month of possible action in favour of debate, discussion and polemic. Some say this is democracy. Perhaps it is simply self-indulgence.

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