Jean-François Copé, leader of Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, sends regular emails to the public. On the right’s poor showing in the first round of cantonal elections, for example: ‘The presidential majority held up rather better than some people predicted.’ We waited impatiently for his upbeat summary of the second round, on 27 March, from which the UMP limped away to prepare for another battle, between the party’s senior moderates and the president’s right-wing entourage.
What is a cantonal election and why should it matter? It’s the vote that enables each department, of which there are 96 in metropolitan France, to elect half the members of its representative assembly, known as the conseil général. (The city of Paris doesn’t vote.) Voting takes place in cantons, or groups of communes. There were elections in roughly half of France’s cantons, for half of these seats, in 2008; and in the other cantons, for the other half, just now.
Since Mitterrand’s decentralisation in the early 1980s, the results have a real bearing on daily life. Departments are responsible, to a greater or lesser extent, for the upkeep of key amenities such as roads, middle-school buildings, public libraries, and care for the disadvantaged (children in poor families, the elderly and disabled). Since 2004, departments have been in charge of housing benefit and some public health provision, including vaccination. All this is set to change in 2014 when two layers of local government – the department and the region – will be integrated for the purposes of voting. But for now, the result in the cantons, especially beyond the larger provincial cities, defines the texture of a place. The result of a presidential election, by contrast, simply brings the ambient noise of national affairs within earshot of everybody, even in a two-bit hamlet in the back of beyond with its hands over its ears.
Or that’s the theory. Yet if the voters saw it like that, turnout at the cantonals would be higher: this year abstention rose to more than 55 per cent in the second round. That may be because the recent cantonals, unusually, weren’t held in tandem with other polls (regionals or municipals). In any case, the local repercussions – the ones that are supposed to count – mean less to the commentators than the big picture. In their reading of the national story, Marine Le Pen has done well.
At first sight, this seems bizarre: the Front National was left contesting 403 seats in the conseils généraux after first-round eliminations, but in the end it won only two (one in the Vaucluse, another in the Var) and took 11 per cent of the total vote. But look at it another way and you’ll see that where it was still in the game, the FN did extraordinarily well. In contests which didn’t involve a straight fight between the left and the right, and where the FN went up against one or the other, it averaged about 35 per cent of the votes cast. In cantons where it survived round one, there was a 50 per cent increase in the total number of FN votes cast in round two.
The left has done well, too, with the highest number of seats by a good way. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it lost votes to the FN, and in the run-up to the elections at least two trade unions, the CGT and Force Ouvrière, were in dispute with members proposing to stand as FN candidates. Yet the damage the FN has inflicted is largely on Sarkozy. (And here’s the latest email from Copé: ‘Dear Madam, Dear Sir, I tell you frankly, Sunday’s results were not satisfactory for our party.’) The UMP, which with various right-wing allies took about 35 per cent of the total vote, is clearly divided. On the one hand are those who see Sarkozy’s turn to the right as a gift to the FN, on the other those who regard it as the best defence. The main battleground just now is the much heralded debate on lay culture (subtitle: ‘What’s the point of Muslims?’). It was supposed to be a rolling national conversation, with Sarkozy at the megaphone, but it strikes a lot of people in the UMP, including the prime minister, François Fillon, as a dangerous undertaking. Plans for this big idea have been much reduced and Sarkozy, who’s been practising in the mirror for months, will be in an epic sulk when little or nothing comes of it, even if he takes credit for the Libyan intervention.
The far right has got a fresh start in Marine Le Pen and it’s hard for the moment to see the bone structure of the father in the face of the daughter. No bad hair days either, and no flippant remarks about the Nazi genocide; much persuasive talk, however, about the secular character of France and the folly of opening up your home to strangers if neither you nor they can pay their board. Marine’s heart, she’s said, can sometimes beat for the huddled masses, but her sense of good housekeeping rapidly brings her back to reality.
Hers is clearly a less brutish anti-establishment posture than her father’s and you’d be hard-pressed now to find an FN stronghold where the library refused to acquire a copy of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (Marignane, Provence, 1996). Yet much remains the same. Le Pen fille favours capital punishment for ‘heinous’ – i.e. thrillingly offensive – crimes, such as murder with torture, or murder of minors and the elderly. She is a fierce protectionist and an enemy of neoliberalism. She is opposed to the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy. Her thinking and eating, her discourse and digestion, are resolutely local. She is anti-American, like many on the left, and reserves the right to criticise Israel, as De Gaulle did, without being reviled as an anti-semite. Unlike that of her opponents, her position is consistent. She is dead set against the free movement of capital, goods and human beings, while the bigger parties can live with the first two, but not the third. She says no to immigration, no to Islam and no to a lot of things, and Sarkozy can’t stay on her trail much longer without losing his way entirely.