‘La Gifle!’ That headline, adding insult to injury, echoed through the French press on Monday, often accompanied by a file photo of the President looking as though his eyes were watering. ‘The Slap in the Face’ for Hollande and his Socialist Party (PS), its waffling policies and mutinous allies (Greens, Communists) was administered by Sunday’s municipal election results. Normally, cities are assumed to be bastions of the PS; the six-year-cycle mayoral elections don’t budge party lines much, merit no more than a few yawns, and certainly don’t invite screaming headlines. But these aren’t normal times for France.
At the risk of boring with numbers: of cities of over 10,000 inhabitants, the left lost 151, the right gained142 and the Front National snapped up 11. Compared to 2008, the pendulum swung hard to the right: from 45.9% in 2008 to 62.1% today. For cities of over 30,000 inhabitants, the left lost 48 of their original 122. So why did the New York Times narrow its focus to a front page profile of FN leader Marine le Pen? Well, why not? She is a straight and quotable talker, photographs well, and drank politics in her baby formula.
But the FN is not all about Marine, the agile heiress of her father and sanitizer of his repugnant ideologies. The current FN has a surprisingly diverse base, and a top guard of serious new talent. Nor, from this point de vue, should the main takeaway from these elections be panic at the shibboleth of the FN. For all its warts, the FN is no NeoNazi party. Their naive economic policies (back to the franc and all that) are scarier than the spectre of ultra-rightism. Consider this: some of the socially most ‘challenged’ districts of Marseille, heavily immigrant, went for the FN. Every-day security in the streets matters a lot to people.
The real story last Sunday was the record-high abstention rate, reflecting public disaffection and ‘homelessness’ when faced with the current parties. Vote for the rightist UMP? It’s riven by leadership fights and a scandal-smeared Sarkozy who has cast himself as Napoleon riding back from exile to save the nation. The PS? On their watch, with the rest of Europe in slow recovery, France has distinguished itself through rising debt, raised taxes, rising unemployment, and perpetually bickering ministers. Vote for the FN, then? Plenty of folk would still rather step into a steaming pile of dog-doo.
A slap in the face is a wake-up call. Hollande, perceiving pitifully few options (he is a life-long functionary, not a thinker outside the box) lost no time in firing his milquetoast PM and putting former Minister of Interior (‘The-Flic-in-Chief’) Manuel Valls in his place. Talk about the President having to suck on a lemon: 51 year old Valls is the only cabinet member with significant public popularity; he is shamelessly ambitious, and could well eclipse his master if he does a decent job. But that won’t be easy. The party’s left-wingers loathe him as a shifty opportunist of the Tony Blair stripe. The Greens have already walked out in a huff. Hollande today saw fit to appoint his ex-ex mistress and mother of his children, Segolene Royal, as Minister of the Environment. To which one can only say, ‘What is that godawful smell?’ The Valls/Hollande parliamentary majority is shrinking. With more defections to come.