After disastrous Local and European elections, both of which marked historic lows in the share of the popular vote, how can President Hollande, and the Socialist party, survive the next three years?The drubbing that the Socialists took in the Local Elections was more severe than many in the party had predicted, with the left losing 121 larger town councils. Across the country the left’s voter simply failed to turn out. Many on the left thought that perhaps the seriousness of the decline in the Socialist vote would wake up their traditional voters who would drift back to them for the European vote two months later. A lacklustre campaign focused first on attacking the Front National with a series of meetings attempting to highlight the incoherance of the FN’s platform, which failed to galvanise the base, and then on arguments of peace and cooperation that may have pleased certain political scientists but lacked any concrete measures that connected with electors. The Socialists have form here – their 2009 campaign should have been a triumph in light of President Sarkozy’s growing unpopularity and the Socialist victory in the 2008 local elections and yet with a score of 16% they lost 14 seats. Sinking to a historic low of just under 14%, the Socialists and their electoral ally, the Left Radicals, are left with 13 seats. The FN obtained a massive 24 seats in comparison.
To the question: what went wrong, no one seems to have the answer. The theories range from general opposition to the major parties (and thus a protest vote in favour of the FN) to opposition against the government’s new centrist economic programme. I am always sceptical of those who claim to know why voters have made the decision they have, whether it is to vote for a particular party, or simply to stay at home. I find the theory that people are angry and frustrated and have used both the FN and abstention as channels for that anger to be the most convincing. This seems to me supported by the low turnout, by the failure of the Socialist government to bring about real economic recovery and by the fact that, whilst the FN has scored well in these elections, their score in national elections (whilst improving due to better targeting of their efforts in the first past the post system in the legislative elections) remains modest.
How can President Hollande respond to this? His television speech of 26 May was somewhat empty, and with good reason: short of a revolution at the European level that would see a widespread investment plan to reinject money back into the European economies that are suffering from excessive taxation and squeezes on public spending, he has no cards left to play. He has changed government, something that was supposed to temper the defeat at the European elections and failed, he has affirmed his Social Democratic programme both in his January press conference and his choice of Manuel Valls, and he seems determined to wait out the worst of the crisis until growth returns.
Valls seems more determined to be activist in the face of a failure to stem unemployment, which shot up again in April, and a stagnant economy, with growth that flatlined the first quarter of this year. There is talk of suspending the triggers for additional obligations on businesses (long claimed by employers to stop businesses from employing more workers to avoid triggering the obligation to have a works’ council and workers’ representatives). Tax cuts are coming for the poorly paid, reversing some of the increases that Hollande himself imposed since 2012. A predicted reform of the habitation tax, the main form of local taxation for individuals, should add a greater level of progressivity.
Above all, Hollande seems convinced that the way to grab the political initiative is by reforming the administrative map of France. More on whether this will be effective later, but what is clear is that it has grabbed both the political and national imagination. The risk is that the imminent fudge of what will be a fiercely complicated reform will fail to convince anyone of its ability to streamlined decisions and generate savings.
There is growing talk within Socialist ranks of a “Hollande problem”. Opinion polls show Hollande sinking to 3% of voting attentions in a hypothetical first round for the next Presidential Election. Some talk of holding a primary for the Socialist candidate or even openly ditching Hollande and replacing him with Valls for 2017. In light of the opposition, and the inability to find any credible alternative, doubling down seems to be the order of the day. The territorial reform, tax cuts and tweaking the Labour Code might produce short term results. But the plan for the rest of the three years is unclear. It needs to become clear, and fast.