Special elections, or by-elections, are usually an uncomfortable experience for sitting governments. The death of an MP, a personal disgrace or a promotion often result in the reshuffling of the parliamentary pack of cards and voters use their unexpected opportunity to send a message to those on high.
What is unusual however is a string of by-elections so soon after victory, but France held this month three legislative by-elections following the invalidation of the June election in those constituencies. Whilst the Socialists were rightly expecting the experience to be unpleasant, the UMP was cock-a-hoop: despite the pathetic infighting which only recently died down to a quiet murmur, the right’s vote held up well. But these three constituencies each tell us something different about the state of public opinion, and it isn’t very good news for anyone.
Hauts-de-Seine: True Blue?
It is no surprise that that conservative heartland of the 13th district of the Hauts-de-Seine stayed firmly on the right. The outgoing MP was easily elected: the former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and undoubtedly charismatic, figure of Patrick Devedjian. His election in June was invalidated because his suppleant was not eligible to stand (an odd mistake to make for an old hand) but perhaps indicates the chaotic backroom nature of the UMP in this district which, since its creation in 1988, has always voted staunchly for the conservative right.
Turnout however was very low for a French election: less than 40%. Whilst voters are undoubtedly a little fatigued at this constant voting (if you voted in the special elections you will have made the trip to the polling station six times since April), and have better things to do on two of the Sunday pre-Christmas shopping days (only in the ivory tower of the Constitutional Council does it make sense to hold special elections in December), the UMP might have hoped to bring out more of the base as a show of force. The left (albeit a conservative left) fared reasonably well with almost 40%. This was not the landslide hoped for by the UMP in a party of the country where landslides should be (and have been) commonplace.
Val-de-Marne: A Little Local Difficulty
Another constituency created by the 1988 Parliamentary reform, the 1st district of the Val-de-Marne covers the comfortable suburbs of Saint Maur and parts of Champigny in south-east Paris. Whilst not as banker-filled as Devedjian’s fief, this is a constituency that has been held by either the right or the centre without interruption. June’s election was closer, reflecting the collapse of the right’s vote in the legislative elections across the country, with the Socialists’ mustering 43% of the vote. The outgoing MP, Henri Plagnol is mayor of Saint Maur and the local UMP baron. He was a minor minister for a brief period during Jacques Chirac’s second term, but is the very picture of a reliant, liberally minded conservative. His June election was also invalidated by the choice of an ineligible suppleant.
Plagnol stood again this month but ended up facing a rebel member of his own party, Sylvain Berrios in the second round, and lost by a margin of 13 points. Turnout collapsed, with 30% in the first round and barely 23% in the second round. Again, the UMP were relieved that they would hold the constituency, but they must have wondered why they had failed, in such a staunchly conservative town as Saint Maur, to get more of their voters to the polls.
Hérault: The Disappearing Left
Having oscillated between left and right during the big landslides of 1997 and 2002, the 6th district of the Hérault encompassing the town of Beziers in the south of France. This is an area with a traditionally strong presence of the Front National, and Marine Le Pen had made this seat a priority. The June election, which saw the Socialist candidate, Dolores Roqué squeak in, was invalidated due to the delicious euphemism of “substantial irregularities”. A strong showing of 23% in the first round of the December special election for the FN failed to enable them to qualify for the second round where the Socialist vote this time collapsed. Dropping from 20,000 votes in June to 12,500 in December, Roqué was soundly beaten by Elie Aboud, deputy mayor of Beziers, despite the fact that he too faced a dissident from his own party in the first round.
Turnout was at 40% not glorious, but Aboud did well to maintain his number of votes from June. A staunch supporter of Jean-François Copé, he seems to have been able to transform his election into a demonstration of force of the Copéists against the Fillonists.
Three More Seats: Four More Years
Whilst the Socialists cannot see in these three results any particular signs of public support for their first six months in government, they should not have expected any. These three atypical constituencies are not bellweathers (although Hérault’s constituency has changed hands, the June election was an outlyer and December’s result is more in keeping with the local trend), but they do show that the left’s supporters see little point in turning out to vote. That’s fine in 2013, but when the municipal and senatorial elections come in 2014, that could be fatal for a government that needs to boost its majority in the upper house.
The UMP has been busy congratulating itself for taking back the Hérault seat and holding up well. Press coverage has been positive for the first time in a month. And yet, a closer look at turnout, never very heavily analysed in French politics, shows that many voters in those conservative fiefs chose not to vote either, and those that did may have done so to participate in the Fillon-Copé battle. That indicates a party that is still at war with itself, and a party with a base that is beginning to disconnect. A disconnected base leads to greater local autonomy and a central command that cannot impose its will (or its candidates) any longer. It also makes the future selection of a UMP Presidential candidate all the more unpredictable.