Respite from Extremity
Jeremy Harding · The French Elections
The defeat of the Front National in every mainland region on Sunday has given France a welcome respite from extremity. Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, which has taken seven out of 12, is in good spirits, as it was on the eve of the contest. Surveying the field before round one, a centre-right MP concluded that François Hollande’s party had done two things well: stealing Sarkozy’s ideas and losing the socialist vote. ‘If you agree with Gramsci,’ he said, ‘it’s an intellectual victory for the right that will end in electoral victory.’
He was managing a campaign in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, which put his candidate up against Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National. Le Pen took first place, whereupon the Parti Socialiste, trailing in third, pulled out of round two to give the centre-right a chance to defeat her. And so it did: the result in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie on Sunday was a comfortable victory for Xavier Bertrand, a minister in Chirac’s day, and again in Sarkozy’s. The outcome was the same in the south-east, where the socialists stepped down and the centre-right stole victory from Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. In the north-west, which also looked promising for the FN, the left candidate refused to scupper the list, leaving local voters – and the parties – with a week-long cliffhanger. Here, too, the centre-right beat the FN and the socialist list came in third. In the rural commune where I live, the FN garnered the highest vote in the second round, as it had in the first. Bleu Marine is a dark kind of blue if you happen to be surrounded, and even though the region as a whole went to the centre-left.
With mixed feelings about the results, I turned to France’s recent interest in Antonio Gramsci, an odd name to hear in a right-wing campaign manager’s soundbite: I don’t recall Sarkozy and his people using it when he was president, or Chirac and his entourage for that matter. It came up in a piece by the French MEP Michèle Rivasi (Europe Ecology-The Greens), who suggested in the Huffington Post that the FN were indeed a bunch of ‘monsters’ breeding in the muggy interval between the death of the ‘old world’ and the birth of a new one.
But Gramsci’s dictum about monsters is a versatile and overused quotation. Support for the Front across the country suggests it’s now part of an ‘us’, rather than a hideous ‘them’. In any case, the big beasts of the Fifth Republic have grown slowly, and seem less monstrous than they actually are, after years of noisy inertia, shifting centrist policies towards structural unemployment of around 10 per cent, ‘secular’ racialism and European austerity, based less on an appeal to thrifty citizens than a fixation in Brussels with ‘stability and growth’, of which Germany and France were the main advocates (and then, before you could blink, the biggest violators of the rules they’d approved). The machines of centre-left and centre-right are like two Graeae passing the same eye and the same tooth from one to the other as they rotate through office: tunnel vision, no bite, and anything to stop the third sister having a turn. What sense does it make to say that one mainstream party is achieving hegemony – I guess that’s what’s meant by the reference to Gramsci – because its ideas have infiltrated the other? Their styles of government, along with substance, have been hard to tell apart for years.
The FN’s followers, like the party’s notables, openly despise the ‘system’ that has blocked their path for the second time in 13 years. They don’t look much like lawless, terrifying people as a demographic tranche, but the stewards at a big FN rally are a different matter, and Le Pen’s most worrying admirers, further than far right, must be growing sick of the electoral road. There were many fewer abstentions in round two on Sunday, a drop of 8.5 per cent. And most of the FN vote had already turned out the week before. If there was a case for giving Le Pen a shot at local government, and letting her supporters see how circumscribed the powers of office really are, no one could bear to go there.
The battle begins again any minute, as the parties prepare for next year’s presidential, where Le Pen is tipped to get through to round two. A new poll suggests it’s yet another one she’d lose, whether to Hollande or Sarkozy. But the opponent who could really strip away her vote is the centre-right's alternative to Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, who is making his way into the foreground of this troubled landscape.