The first round of the French cantonal elections offered a puzzling verdict on Sunday. Most observers were expecting a historic rise of Marine Le Pen's extreme right National Front party, whose leaders were already calling themselves "the first party in France".

Nicolas Sarkozy had also marked this date on his calendar as the first step of a succession of electoral victories that would eventually lead him back to the Elysee Palace in 2017.

Both were eagerly waiting for the collapse of President Francois Hollande's party and an embarrassing result for both him and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who are regularly criticised for their lack of reforms and authority. All three parties claimed some form of victory at the end of the day, even if none of them reached their objectives. The key protagonists are well known but the road to the next presidential elections has become even more uncertain.

French far-right party eyes gains in regional elections

Institutional reforms

Beyond partisan cleavages, these elections have underlined several important evolutions.

First, clearly there has been a burst of political engagement in France. Much to the disappointment of Le Pen, who was hoping to capitalise on the French electorate lethargy, the participation in local elections has been higher than expected.

Two months after the historic "Je Suis Charlie" marches, French citizens turned up to the ballot at a significantly higher level than for the last cantonal vote in 2011.

Second, this vote was a first in many ways. The complexity of this technical ballot was addressed. The rules for cantonal elections in France have been significantly simplified. The number of constituencies was reduced to two, but most importantly, voters chose a man and a woman ensuring that there would be absolute parity between both sexes in local assemblies.

A few minutes after the results, Marine Le Pen, with a belligerent and aggressive rhetoric, called for the dismissal of Manuel Valls and adamantly referred to what she labeled as an historic feat. Yet, those results are nowhere near what she could have hoped for. Le Pen failed to pull an electoral gain as her party recorded 23 percent of votes, below the levels reached in the 2014 European elections.

Winning a midterm election at a time of economic depression with a president whose popularity is desperately low is not exactly a colossal success for an opposition leader.

 

No clear winners

If Le Pen hid behind the fact that her party often lacked local structures to build on in rural areas, her score would have been even lower had the three main French cities - Paris, Lyon and Marseille - taken part in the vote. Those cities, where the higher educated population is traditionally opposed to the Front National rhetoric, follow a different electoral process and were not called to vote on Sunday.

Le Pen's party, whose political platform was merely based on repeated slogans, might very well have reach its political ceiling during these elections.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Manuel Valls might ironically be seen as an unlikely winner. His Socialist Party did suffer a severe defeat but most forecasted worse results. For the last weeks he took the helm of the fight against the populism and xenophobia incarnated by Le Pen and harangued the French population to go and vote. These elections might prove to be the starting point of Valls' own run for the 2017 presidential elections.

Valls needs to be able to rally different political forces behind him, if he wants to have any shot at victory for future elections. If the Socialist Party lost Sunday's election, it is because the left wing parties have proven once again their incapacity to unite. The Left Front, the Green Party, the Radical Party, all presented separate candidates ruining any chance for political victory.

Valls has no other option but to include other political factions in his government. This has to start with the ecologist party, Europe Ecologie, which could prove an important ally as France prepares to host the next Climate Change Summit in six months. The prime minister's rigid personality might be an asset to fight the Front National; it may be detrimental to the building of much needed political alliances.

Victory for Sarkozy?

On the other hand, Sarkozy managed ahead of the election to gather a strong coalition from the centre to the right. Still, the results were not exactly a triumph for the former president. Sarkozy could clearly claim victory but the fact that the sum of all right wing parties reached 36 per cent only means that he will have no other option but to hunt on Le Pen's ground hoping to convince some of her electorate.

Winning a midterm election at a time of economic depression with a president whose popularity is desperately low is not exactly a colossal success for an opposition leader. Sarkozy will have to convince voters that he represents a viable alternative, even though he is arguably responsible for most of the economic difficulties France is now going through.

Facing a now established Front National on his right and a rejuvenated Socialist Party with Manuel Valls on his left, Sarkozy's road to victory will not be steady or quiet, especially as several legal scandals will likely be brought under the spotlight again. 

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

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

Source: Al Jazeera