Francois Hollande’s governing Socialist Party (PS) lost control of around 155 towns and cities in France’s municipal elections on 30 March. There was a strong showing for the far-right Front National (FN) and a boost for the centre-right UMP.
In what is already being dubbed “Black Sunday”, voters sought to punish Hollande — who is now polling as the most unpopular President of the Fifth Republic. His only consolation is that the PS held Paris, with Anne Hidalgo succeeding Bertrand Delanoë to become the city’s first woman mayor.
Hollande reshuffled his government on 1 April, with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault standing down. He was replaced by Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a self-described “Blairiste” and “Clintonien”.
Valls is on the right of the party, and is often compared to former President Nicholas Sarkozy for his ambition and hard-line stance on crime and security issues. His promotion has already led to the departure of Cécile Duflot, one of the Green ministers in the government, and threatens to further divide the ruling PS.
Voters were discontented with rising unemployment, which currently sits at around 10%. Working-class voters are angry at cuts intended to reduce France’s budget deficit, while the more wealthy resent tax rises, especially the abolition of former President Sarkozy’s “tax holiday” on overtime.
In Le Monde, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from Front de Gauche blamed Hollande and his “turn rightwards, the government’s preferred alliance with the [French employers’ organisation] MEDEF, and its submission to European austerity policies. These have produced a disaster.”.
The FN won in 11 towns of over 9,000 inhabitants, surpassing their previous high-point in the mid-90s when they were briefly in control of four town halls. Though most of the towns are small, the FN now also controls the diverse 7th district of Marseilles, home to 150,000 people in France’s second city. This gives them a strong base on which to build going in to the European elections in May, in which they are expected to poll in second place ahead of the PS.
Nonna Mayer, research director at the Centre of European Studies at Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Science), told the Guardian: “It’s the first time the Front National has organised such an electoral dynamic in local elections…Voters are so tired of the economic situation and they have the feeling that the left and the right have been unable to find a solution … They say we have tried everything, why not try the Front National.”
This was echoed by the former Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA) presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot, who pointed to the 38% abstention rate as proof that “the political system has been reduced to ashes” and called vaguely for a “democratic insurrection.”
The Socialist Mayor of Farciennes in Belgium has suspended relations with its “sister city” Beaucaire, which elected an FN mayor. The Mayor of Arlon, twinned with Hayange, has proposed the same. These symbolic actions will, of course, be little consolation for those at the sharp end of the FN’s racism in France.
The main victor in the election was the centre-right UMP opposition, which has sought to undermine the government’s legitimacy by offering a power-sharing arrangement.
Exit polls show that the UMP won around 49% of the vote to the PS’s 24%. It captured the city of Toulouse, as well as a slew of towns traditionally run by the left, including Limoges, which had been left-controlled since 1912.