The conservative wave has drastically slowed down in France and the next presidential race is as open as ever. During the past three years, under Francois Hollande’s administration, the Socialist party has suffered a crushing defeat in every single national and European election.
Sunday’s election, however, showed an unexpected resistance from the governmental party. Until late in the night, the regions of Paris and Normandy remained too close to call before eventually falling into Republican hands. If it were not for those narrow defeats, the Socialist party would have actually won more regions than former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party.
While early analyses prophesied that a Socialist candidate would face a rout in the 2017 presidential elections, this regional ballot showed that the story is far from written. The French population responded to the clarity of the left-wing party’s strategy of barring the National Front from completely taking over.
Over the past week, Prime Minister Manuel Valls displayed the authority that France has longed for in recent years. Calling for a resistance to the rise of fascist forces in the hope of preventing a potential “civil war”, Valls referred to a Spanish conflict deeply rooted in his family origins.
At the same time, Sarkozy’s rejection of a political union against Marine Le Pen exposed his inability to rise to the occasion.
Highway to the presidency
Sarkozy’s highway to the presidency has turned into a steep track. One of the main lessons of these regional elections is that the strategy chosen by the Republican leader is backfiring.
In the hope of maximising his personal chances for 2017, Sarkozy pointed the finger of blame at the Socialist party for the shortcomings of its economic policies, and at the populist National Front, which took direct jabs at the cosmopolitanism of the French society and the country’s republican values.
Sarkozy misjudged completely the desire for unity and courage among the French population after the terrorist attacks last month.
In doing so, Sarkozy misjudged completely the desire for unity and courage among the French population after last month’s terrorist attacks.
The Republican party’s blind support for its leader started to crumble as soon as the results came in. His “neither the Socialist, nor the Nationalist” line had already come under fire from the party’s vice president, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, and former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who denounced this approach as a violation of the political movement’s history and values.
Under dissonant pressures within his own political family, Sarkozy was forced on Sunday to concede a thorough review of his political platform.
Worst for Sarkozy, the few newly elected Republican regional presidents are, for the most part, official supporters of his likely opponents during the Republican party primaries.
Valerie Pecresse, in the Parisian region, clearly requested that Sarkozy did not attend her meetings and openly favours his long-time opponent Francois Fillon.
So does Philippe Richert, in Alsace, and Bruno Retailleau, in the West of France. The victory of centrist figure Bruno Morin, in Normandy, confirmed the success of the political strategy of union to the smaller centrist political formations defended by Sarkozy’s most serious opponent, Alain Juppe.
Rise of the extreme right
During the entire campaign, Sarkozy tried to ascribe the rise of the extreme right to the policies of the Socialist party. In truth, most agree that Sarkozy’s obsession with opening a national debate on the French identity during his administration, in the hope of collecting support from the National Front backyard, alienated a significant part of the electorate.
It also unleashed the xenophobic resentment of the most disfavoured population, now blatantly using immigrants as a scapegoat to legitimise their failure to prosper in French society.
Yet this election has proved that the large majority of the French population strongly rejects racism as an attack on its core values. If the National Front failed to win any of the 14 regions, this election also made another significant victim as Claude Bartolone, the National Assembly president, submitted his resignation after his defeat in the Parisian region.
Bartolone was the expected winner of the race after a favourable first round in a region held by the Socialist party for almost 20 years. Yet his controversial comment on his opponent Valerie Pecresse, stigmatising her tendency to flirt with the National Front thesis by saying she only wanted to please white people, immediately cost him the victory.
This sudden change of heart from the electorate in France’s main region shows that there is no hope of victory for a candidate who would increase hatred within the French population.
Yet Sarkozy built his past campaign success on antagonism and finger-pointing. He shackled himself in a role that is now incompatible with the intimate desire of the French population to be reunited and protected in the wake of terrorist threats.
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.