Despite the High Stakes, French Voters Yawn at Legislative Campaigns

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Pascal Rossignol / REUTERS

A Parti de Gauche political party activist pastes posters on a wall in support for Jean-Luc Melenchon of France's Parti de Gauche political party for the upcoming legislative elections, in Henin-Beaumont, France, May 29, 2012.

No one ever expected France’s legislative elections to produce the sparks and passion that this year’s presidential contest did. But given the stakes involved for France—and Europe—in whether Socialist President François Hollande will rule with a cooperative leftist majority or find himself battling a hostile conservative legislature and government, the yawns surrounding the current parliamentary races are still rather surprising. Indeed, it almost seems as though voters and parties alike view the parliamentary battle as being virtually over well before balloting begins.

Polls suggest that voters who elected Hollande to the Elysée on May 6 are erring towards consistency as the battle for control of the Assemblée Nationale looms. Recent surveys indicate that leftist parties will get around 44.5% of the vote in the first round of balloting on June 10. Outgoing conservatives—who’ve held legislative power since 2002—are projected to receive 33.5% of the first-round vote, and Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right National Front (FN) party is expected to garner 15.5%. 

That result would leave the left at a distinct advantage during second-round voting on June 17, political analysts say. The reason: multiple “triangular” run-offs involving mainstream conservative, leftist, and FN candidates. Unlike typical final-round votes involving just two qualifiers from opposing ends of the political spectrum, “triangulars” usually result from an FN contender also clearing the 12.5% bar in first-round voting to advance to the second stage. Once there, balloting on the right is usually split between the FN and conservative candidates, leaving the leftist contender positioned to sail to victory on the strength of backing from supporters of all progressive parties. For that reason, the threat of forcing “triangular” finals has been used by the FN in successive elections to blackmail mainstream conservatives to cut electoral deals with extreme-rightists—or go down in defeat.

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That’s precisely why debate had initially been so fierce within former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) party over whether to break its taboo against dealing with the xenophobic FN, which it condemns as “anti-Republican.” In recent months, some UMP members have argued that the time had come to negotiate electoral accords with Le Pen’s allies to deny the left victory in “triangular” races—and thereby, just maybe, thwart its anticipated parliamentary majority to boot. But given the political controversy—and, ultimately, the strategic failure—of Sarkozy’s efforts to pander to FN voters in his presidential bid, the vast majority of UMP officials now emphatically reject any suggestion of ending the conservatives’ ostracism of the extreme-right—even as a last-ditch hope in beating the left.

That’s not the only reason legislative campaigning has yet to stoke the excitement of French voters. With the deeply unpopular Sarkozy now removed from the political picture with his presidential loss, UMP leaders have spent more time battling one another for control of the party than they have their leftist foes in parliamentary races. Meantime, as the provisional government of Socialist premier Jean-Marc Ayrault rushes to act on Hollande’s pledges to stimulate growth, create jobs and reign in executive pay in the midst of general public approval, some conservatives wonder what chance the right could have to retain its parliamentary majority. Resignation, rather than revolt, appears to be the prevailing force among voters and politicians on the French right.

So is the prevailing (and bored) conventional wisdom that French conservatives are already fini accurate and irreversible? Not necessarily. While most analysts say early voter projections and an abundance of “triangular” final-round races will make it devilishly difficult for conservatives to keep their hold on legislative power, the left may yet wind up creating troubles for itself. Though surveys show Hollande’s Socialists winning a majority of the leftist vote in the first round, a sizable chunk of leftist support should go to the communist-allied Front of the Left (FG) party. And despite its position on the left side of the political spectrum, the FG may be more of a challenge than a chum to the Socialists.

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The FG and its populist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon backed Hollande in the presidential face-off against Sarkozy—but only as it demonstratively held its nose. Both before then and since, Mélenchon has ravaged Hollande and his Socialist peers for being far too centrist—or even conservative—in their social and economic proposals. Because of that, it’s not only possible that FG candidates may refuse to cut deals with Socialists when the left finds itself in unfavorable “triangular” run-offs of its own, it’s also feasible that extreme-left FG voters may simply refuse to back “overly moderate” Socialists in regular run-off duels with conservatives on June 17.

What’s the take-away from all this? As this Chicago Tribune story notes, the consensus view among French experts is that Hollande will get his leftist majority in parliament, and therefore be able to govern with an allied cabinet (probably led by the renewed Ayrault at its helm). However, individual races and the wider parliamentary campaign will almost certainly be harder—and perhaps contain more surprises—for the left than even many conservatives may figure at this point.

Meanwhile, even in the event of legislative victory, the moderate Hollande will find himself dealing with a parliamentary majority needing the support of minority environmentalists and hard-left members who will demand concessions in exchange for their backing. That suggests that even if current campaigning isn’t generating many sparks, there may be plenty of friction within the Assemblée Nationale once the left is in legislative control.

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