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Opinion

French elections: La Republique is dead, long live la Republique?

New political actors may help the French republican model to survive and resist a rise of the extreme.

Last updated: 01 Apr 2014 09:28
Remi Piet

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy Department of International Affairs College of Arts and Sciences Qatar University, Doha, Qatar
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The defeat of the French republican ideal cannot be overstated, writes Piet [Reuters]

On March 30, French citizens confirmed in the second round of the mayoral elections their distrust in the current government and their disenchantment with traditional parties. While a superficial read of the result would tend to summarise the elections as a cyclical swing of the votes to the right or focus on the rise of the extreme-right Front National Party, one should underline important structural evolutions in the French political system.

Jean-Francois Cope, as head of UMP - Union for a Popular Movement, the traditional opposition party which had led Nicolas Sarkozy to victory in 2007, has been adamantly clamouring that this election was a clear plebiscite for his party and his personal strategy. Some results support his claims as President Francois Hollande's defeat is of historical proportion. UMP won 142 cities of over 10,000 inhabitants, over the incumbent socialist party - including Toulouse, Saint-Etienne, Amiens, Reims, Caen and Angers - a result overpassing any estimation. However, this victory should be nuanced.

First, the previous mayoral elections had seen a similar swing to the left and the recent election results are mainly rebalancing the "pink wave" of 2008, when the Socialist party had recorded historic victories. A city like Toulouse, for example, had elected right-wing mayors since 1970 until the 2008 upset. The same goes for Reims, 1983, and Amiens, 1989, while Caen has only had one left-wing mayor over the last 100 years.

Second, UMP failed to win Paris again. Jacques Chirac's former stronghold will have its first female mayor in socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, with UMP and Sarkozy heavily involved in the campaign. This defeat is representative of the failure of the right wing party to capitalise on Hollande's incapacity to effectively manage the country. While Hollande's popularity sunk below an unprecedented 20 percent approval rating, the main opposition party has gone through its fair share of political scandals, diminishing its status as a viable alternative in the eyes of the French electorate.

Third, most of the local UMP victories resulted from alliances with the Front National, the nationalistic party created by negationist and xenophobic politician Jean Marie Le Pen in 1972 and now presided over by his daughter, Marine Le Pen, who offers a less controversial figurehead over what remains a virtually untouched political platform. The mayoral elections have also been marked by the staggering level of abstention. For the first time in mayoral elections, 36 percent of the population opted not to vote; including two-thirds of the French youth - only 39 percent of those aged 18-24 decided to cast their vote.

Slow demise of republican model

This is actually the main lesson from these elections. Sunday's election has confirmed the slow demise of the French republican model. While traditionally under the Francois Mitterrand or Chirac presidency, both left and right wing parties agreed to ally their forces in a "Republican Front", in opposition to Le Pen's National Front, the most recent ballot confirmed the change of strategy from UMP, already initiated by Sarkozy in the last years of his presidency. The absence of a call for republican unity was supported by almost every political leader on the right, in the hope of receiving individual electoral gain in their respective constituency. What ensured a shortsighted electoral victory for the right also meant an additional nail in the coffin of the French republican values of secularism, diversity and integration.

The absence of a call for republican unity was supported by almost every political leader on the right, in the hope of receiving individual electoral gain in their respective constituency. What ensured a shortsighted electoral victory for the right also meant an additional nail in the coffin of the French republican values of secularism, diversity and integration.

If the calls for victory from the Sarkozy/Cope party are therefore exaggerated, the defeat of the French republican ideal cannot be overstated. The French electorate has clearly voiced its disbelief and its refusal to support traditional parties.

After rejecting Sarkozy during the 2012 presidential elections, opting for an Hollande who positioned himself as a "normal president", France rejected the latter. Normality had turned into pedestrianism and got ever closer to pitifulness.

The Front National received the fruit of this nationwide disappointment but on closer look, the far right party did not receive an impressive amount of additional votes despite its strong attempt to be perceived as more respectable. Instead it won on the ashes of abstention and UMP's change of strategy.

What is more worrisome in France is the absolute distrust in the ruling political class. A recent poll showed that more than 70 percent of the French population believed that their politicians were corrupt. The constant waves of scandals have led to the unavoidable collapse of the ruling political cast.

From the proven tax evasion last year committed by the very budget minister supposed to fight fiscal havens to the increasing series of investigations against Sarkozy - from illegal financing of his political campaigns to his participation in awarding hundreds of millions of euros in settlement for a shady businessman - the French political scene has drifted away from its once respected republican debate. It now resembles a telenovela of financial scandals reminiscent of the darkest hours of the Berlusconi administration in Italy. The strongly-worded open letter signed by Sarkozy in Le Figaro, a copycat of Berlusconi's argument against perceived politically motivated investigations and "stasi-like" practises, confirmed this degeneration of French politics.

Seeds of hope

However, there are seeds of hope. The recent ballot has also led to the election of several young figures. Whether from the traditional right or the left, these local elections have benefited a new generation of politicians who appear promising. Key victories from the right were facilitated by the emergence of candidates in their 30s who will now hold the reins in important cities: Arnaud Robinet, 38, in Reims; Laurent Marcangeli, 33, in Ajaccio; Christophe Bechu, 39, in Angers; Gerald Darmanin, 31, in Tourcoing.

A future similar to the one of Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi who conquered the Italian Congress from his city of Florence before reaching the age of 40, could very well be in the cards for these young French politicians. All of them supported former Prime Minister Francois Fillon in his attempt to win over UMP from hardliner Cope, and two of them are second- or third-generation immigrants, providing hope for the French social contract.

Similarly on the left, the victory in Paris has confirmed the success of former Mayor Bertrand Delanoe who supported Hidalgo. Neither had ever held government positions, and both proudly advocated for ensuring the success of the French capital away from ministerial establishments.

One of the biggest surprises of the elections was the victory of Eric Piolle in Grenoble, one of the largest and most dynamic cities in France. Piolle, 41, comes from the Green party Europe Ecologie les Verts, which for the first time has a relevant stage to showcase its political programme, one that traditionally has supported diversity and the sustainable development of the country.

Therefore, the main outcome of these elections is a much-needed change of generation immediately answered by Hollande's decision to name Manuel Valls as new prime minister - who is 13 years younger than his predecessor. While a majority of young voters were discouraged from French politics and did not show up to vote, the French republican model might find its survival and its capacity to resist a rise of the extreme in these new political actors.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy Department of International Affairs College of Arts and Sciences Qatar University, Doha, Qatar

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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