After Socialist Romp in Elections, France’s Conservatives Face Existential Crisis

French President François Hollande's Socialists win formidable legislative control, while France's conservatives suffer the consequences of having pandered to the country's far right

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BERTRAND GUAY / AFP / Getty Images

French Union for a Popular Movement party's general secretary Jean-Francois Cope leaves after giving a press conference at the UMP headquarters in Paris following the results of the second round of parliamentary elections., June 17, 2012.

The leftist romp in France’s June 17 legislative elections gave the Socialist Party of French President François Hollande a commanding parliamentary majority — and with it a free hand with which to usher in policy reversal. The Élysée now can push for more domestic spending to stimulate a sluggish French economy that, Hollande says, has been hurt by the austerity measures of France’s previous conservative leaders. It also provides Hollande a sturdy French base from which he’ll rally like-minded European partners to adopt similar Keynesian policies across the recessionary euro zone. That’s an ambitious — and risky — program that can now begin in earnest.

Compare that with France’s new conservative minority, which suddenly finds itself in a drastically altered and emphatically defensive posture. Not only are the allies of former President Nicolas Sarkozy powerless to block leftist spending plans — they now also have to reckon with their loss of influence on pan-European policy and the end of an active partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in defending austerity measures. Instead, Sarkozy’s camp turn inward to deal with the deep existential questions confronting the French right.

Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) won 314 of Parliament’s 577 seats, creating a formidable majority that the President can rely upon without reserve. Meanwhile, that Socialist bloc can count on the frequent support of 17 ecologists and 10 hard-left candidates who also won legislative posts. Struggling to confront those overpowering numbers are conservatives of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), who saw their previous majority of 320 seats reduced to just 209.

Yet that defeat was unevenly distributed across the French right. Sunday’s balloting returned the extreme-right National Front (FN) party to Parliament for the first time since 1988. One of the two seats the party won was captured by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 22-year-old niece of leader Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Although Marine Le Pen lost her own electoral bid in a northern constituency by just 118 votes, she nevertheless celebrated the relatively strong showing by her party.

Le Pen claimed that showing, combined with the pummeling of mainstream conservatives, was a sign that voters on the French right were turning to the former pariah FN as a credible actor in French politics. “Voters are ready for a recomposition [of the right] around the FN,” Le Pen said of the many party candidates posting respectable scores in losing runoff races. “It shows reconfiguration of the political landscape is under way.”

Many French politicians fear that Le Pen may be right — and now call for moves to reverse the FN’s advance. Many mainstream conservatives are damning their defeat as the consequence of Sarkozy having overtly pandered to extreme-right voters in his increasingly desperate — and ultimately failed — effort to win re-election. That, critics claim, breached the firewall that mainstream parties had previously set up to prevent the xenophobic, anti-immigrant and fervently nationalist FN from being a relevant political player.

By openly courting the extreme-right electorate, most analysts agree, Sarkozy somewhat legitimized the FN in the public eye and imported extreme-right themes and positions into mainstream political debate. Meanwhile, far from wooing that electorate to his cause as he first did in 2007, Sarkozy’s bow to the extreme right helped fuel Marine Le Pen’s unexpected success in winning nearly 18% of the vote in the first round of presidential polling.

Just as bad, many high-profile UMP officials began replicating their boss’s tactics to advance their electoral interests. Invariably, however, UMP politicians who played the extreme-right card paid as dearly for it as Sarkozy. Nadine Morano — a rabid Sarkozy loyalist and former member of his Cabinet — lost her re-election to Parliament on Sunday to a Socialist opponent amid controversy over her earlier pleas for support from FN voters who “share my values.” Similarly, former Interior Minister Claude Guéant was defeated in his parliamentary bid after he was unable to shrug off the charges of critics who described him as unfriendly to immigrants, minorities and Muslims.

Other UMP candidates who played with the same extreme-right fire wound up getting just as burned — and got little sympathy from disgusted party peers. “When I hear certain people say they have [common] values with the National Front and affinity for Marine Le Pen, what comes next — a drink together?” railed former Economy Minister François Baroin on Monday on RTL radio, clearly referring to fellow UMP members like Morano.

“Sad, uncontestable defeat punishing the strategy of [veering] rightward,” tweeted former UMP Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno on Sunday evening.

In a similar vein, another former Sarkozy Cabinet minister and UMP official, Xavier Bertrand, said his re-election “victory is proof that we can win without deals, without changing [and] by remaining ourselves.” Yet given the political damage and electoral thumping caused by peers who adopted the extreme-right drift, Bertrand told Canal Plus TV on Monday that the UMP now “must completely reconstruct itself” and is “at the start of a very long road.”

Given the bleak outlook, what could possibly brighten spirits on France’s right? How about the schadenfreude of seeing leftist rivals bite electoral dust. Topping that list is the controversial defeat of Ségolène Royal — the 2007 Socialist presidential candidate beaten on Sunday after local conservatives flocked to back her dissident leftist opponent in the final. Similar conservative satisfaction was gained by iconic Socialist Culture Minister Jack Lang losing his bid for what had been considered a PS safe seat.

Also denied was centrist leader François Bayrou, who after capturing just 9.3% of first-round presidential voting in April — compared with his 18.6% score in 2007 — on Sunday lost the parliamentary seat he’s held since 1986. Like Royal, that loss now puts Bayrou’s very political career into question. That’s a potential deathblow to rivals that French conservatives might typically relish, but are less inclined to celebrate as they instead fret over their own gloomy outlook right now.