Last week, as France woke up to the results of the second round of municipal elections, the on-line newspaper Rue 89 breathlessly announced: “Miracle at Lourdes!” The event, to be sure, was more dazzling than a cripple throwing off her crutches or a blind man again seeing: a Socialist had won the mayor’s race!
It was the sort of headline that could provoke tears as well as laughter — at least for the French Left. For several reasons, none of which bode well for the ruling coalition of the Socialist and Green Parties, the March 30th vote was historic. First, the number of abstentions, nearly 40%, dwarfed the previous record set…the week before during the first round of elections. In effect, the electorate, increasingly disenchanted, if not disgusted with traditional politics, turned its back on all the mainstream parties not once, but twice.
Inevitably, voter demobilization was greatest in the ranks of the party that, in power for two years has nevertheless seemed increasingly powerless, if not clueless, over the direction they sought to take the country. The Socialists lost 151 mayoral races in cities of more than 10,000 habitants — a pummeling which eclipses the epic defeat of the François Mitterrand’s Socialists in 1983. Tellingly, the party’s leading figures did not attempt to finesse the defeat’s magnitude. Instead, they outdid one another in their efforts to convey the event’s dimensions, ranging from “collective suicide” and “hecatomb” to “hammering” and “unprecedented slap in the face.”
Second, the election represented the resurrection of the UMP, the conservative neo-Gaullist party that Nicolas Sarkozy had driven to defeat just two years ago. Now led by the equally controversial Jean-François Copé, the party caught 141 of the cities that “basculé” or tipped to the right. This number becomes all the more stunning against the background of financial scandals and judicial investigations that have engulfed Sarkozy — whose ability to juggle a half-dozen simultaneous different hearings qualifies him for a career, if not in the Elysée, than certainly with Cirque du Soleil — and his former disciple Copé.
The UMP’s success is less a measure of their attractiveness than of the radioactivity radiating from the Socialists. Unable to reverse the rise in unemployment — one of the key vows made and broken by President François Hollande — and halt the hemorrhage of foreign investors frightened by the dramatic hikes in tax rates, caught in the vise of the European Union’s demands to reduce its deficit and the staggering costs of the state’s generous welfare system, the Socialists have alienated a number of traditional constituencies. This includes industrial workers who, despite the government’s anemic campaign to convince French consumers to buy “Made in France” products, face lay-offs and closings, but also middle-class professionals worried over the new taxes and nonplussed by the government’s chronic disarray.