More Polling, More Bad News For Sarkozy

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French pundits who had feared an historically high score by the extreme-right National Front (FN) in Sunday’s second round of local polling breathed a sigh of relief when the party’s tally didn’t meet expectations. But while the FN’s 11% performance was well below its 15% first-round take—and nearly half of the 20% result some advance polls had predicted—it did nothing to reduce concerns about what French mainstream conservatives now call their biggest nightmare: the scenario of President Nicolas Sarkozy being eliminated in the first round of presidential polling next year by the surging FN leader Marine Le Pen on the extreme-right, and a Socialist candidate on the left.

Though the stakes in Sunday’s cantonal races were strictly local, observers still viewed them as nationally significant as the last official measure of voter temperature before next year’s presidential elections. And that reading is of great worry to Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Majority (UMP). The party’s second-round score of 20% Sunday was up from 17% the week before, but paled against Socialist gains over the same period of 25% to 36%–making the left by far the largest winner in the contest. Meanwhile, the FN’s outward decline involves mitigating factors: though present in most races during the first round of campaigning, FN candidates qualified for only 403 of the 1,566 seats up for grabs in the second stage Sunday. And while that saw the party’s take drop from 15% to 11% in national terms, it scored as high as 40% in some cantons where it had a candidate in the run-off. That collection of results led most analysts—and more than a few worried conservative politicians—to interpret the outcome as a reflection of the contrasting political fortunes of the deeply unpopular Sarkozy, and the surging Le Pen.

And one upshot of that is voices are now being heard asking whether Sarkozy ought not stand aside and allow a stronger candidate to represent the mainstream right, or whether he should stand firm and run the risk in 2012 of becoming first incumbent president in French history to fail to make it past the first round of voting.

It would be wise at this juncture to point out that a year is an eternity in politics, and that even elements largely beyond Sarkozy’s control suddenly improving—the global economy, foremost, and France’s employment outlook as a consequence—could well lift the president’s re-election prospects swiftly and dramatically. Meanwhile, even with his approval rating now depressed to somewhere between 24% and 30% (depending on the poll), it would be imprudent to rule out such a formidable politician as Sarkozy from mounting a comeback. But as a snap shot of voter sentiment a year ahead of national races, Sunday’s cantonal elections offer reasons for Sarkozy and his conservative allies to be legitimately concerned—especially regarding the challenge from Le Pen.

Voter unhappiness with Sarkozy is so great that many UMP candidates not only failed to mention affiliation with the president in campaign posters and literature–some didn’t even use the party name or logo. FN candidates, inversely, presented themselves as virtual proxies of the increasingly popular Le Pen, whose rise has coincided with Sarkozy and UMP backers repeatedly re-cast their own positions on immigration, national identity, law and order, and Islam’s influence in France to echo those the extreme-right has long championed. The result: many mainstream conservative voters dissatisfied with Sarkozy’s performance have interpreted his appropriation of long-shunned FN themes as both legitimizing those positions, and leaving Le Pen looking like the best person to defend them. Not coincidentally, less than 24 hours after the UMP’s drubbing in the cantonal election, a new poll published Monday simulating 2012 voting replicated results of several other surveys showing Le Pen beating Sarkozy to qualify for the run-off with leftist rivals.

Up till now, all new signs that UMP efforts to borrow pages from the FN’s playbook had backfired by benefiting Le Pen were met with scorn and defiance from conservatives who vowed to stay that course. With the electoral clock now running, that may be over. Government officials Monday spoke about the need to return to “Republican values and themes”—terms used in the past to differentiate conservative policies from the extremist and allegedly anti-democratic designs of the FN. French Prime Minister François Fillon, meanwhile, warned that Sunday’s outcome “shows the protest vote should not be underestimated or made light of”, and that concerns of voters defecting to the FN must be addressed in a manner that doesn’t play into Le Pen’s hands.

A year is an eternity in politics, but the clock is already ticking. Sarkozy has about six months to get his re-election drive back on track and his slumping popularity level rising anew if he want to have a chance to stave off Le Pen in the first round of voting next year. Should he fail to do either of those by next autumn, the current whispers from fellow conservatives about finding another candidate capable of taking Le Pen on in his place will turn into shouts.