President François Hollande, France’s most unpopular leader in the 56-year history of the Fifth Republic, has just been slapped upside the head with the worst electoral drubbing his Socialist Party — which he himself led for decades — has ever endured. In the second round of local elections last weekend it lost some 150 town halls as resurgent conservatives, spearheaded by Marine Le Pen’s National Front, angrily rejected Hollande’s policies after his first two years in office. It’s hard to imagine that the French will ever be fed up with socialism and all the “free” goodies it represents, from five-week vacations to health care and handouts for all. But there’s no longer any possible doubt that they are thoroughly fed up with him and a vacillating, tax-obsessed, amateurish administration that has produced economic stagnation and record unemployment of 11 percent.
French media couldn’t decide among themselves whether it was a landslide, a tidal wave, a tsunami, or whatever the French is for a good old-fashioned shellacking. For his part, Jean-François Copé, the head of the center-right UMP party, happily called it a blue wave (in France, where they do things differently, blue is the color of conservative parties). We knew that his numbers, hovering lately around 19 percent, were abysmal. But this was the first chance the French have had since his election in 2012 to express their feelings at the ballot box. They sent their message both by going fishing — abstention, which tends to penalize the left, rose from 33 percent in the 2008 balloting to nearly 40 percent, a new record for local elections — as well as by voting for right-wing mayors and municipal counselors.
Any way you looked at it, it was a socialist debacle. Among the 150 cities the party lost were Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city and longtime socialist fief, along with several traditionally left-wing northern industrial cities. Others include Limoges, held by the left since 1912 (sic), and a usually red Paris suburb governed by the Communist Party since 1945 (re-sic). (Thanks to the limousine liberal vote, the socialists were able to avoid what would have been the devastating humiliation of losing Paris.) Overall, the combined conservative vote was 46 percent, vs. 40 percent for the socialists, Greens, and other left-wing parties.
The National Front undeniably scored the biggest breakthrough and made the biggest news, fulfilling the left’s worst nightmare by picking up an unprecedented 15 town halls and over 1,200 municipal council seats. This gives Marine Le Pen the local entrenchment she needs to claim the political legitimacy as a third force in French politics that the mainstream parties, both left and right, have long tried to deny the NF. It’s hard to argue with her election night victory speech claiming, “The glass ceiling has been shattered… Clearly we are entering a new phase. The duopoly of French politics has been broken." Front mayors and municipal counselors will now have the chance to show skeptics that they can run cities effectively and honestly, something they failed at when the party won a few town halls in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the party is well positioned to deal Hollande another blow by coming in first in the European Parliament elections on May 25.
At first it seemed that the Hollande administration had gotten it. His prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, looking tired and shaken, called it “a moment of truth… this vote is a defeat for the government.” Hollande himself went on national television to say he understood the French mood of disappointment, and promised to start a new era, beginning with a new administration. He fired Ayrault and appointed the pugnacious interior minister, Manuel Valls, as premier. It would be a gouvernement de combat that would respond to the voters’ message.
But Hollande, career party hack serving in his first elected position, knows only one way to tackle problems: shuffling people around, making appointments carefully calculated to please and mollify different sectors of his constituency. Instead of the wholesale change of policies voters had demanded, he gave them musical chairs. The cabinet is slimmed down to 16 members from over twice that, but composed of the same socialist retreads. The one thing they have in common as political careerists or civil servants is lack of any experience in the private sector. Only two of its members are new to the administration, and one of those, Ségolène Royal, held the same job, minister of ecology, 22 years ago under François Mitterrand. (Hollande is already being ridiculed for making Royal number three in the government: they lived together 30 years and she is the unmarried mother of his four children. Paris wags are already snickering that she doesn’t need a chair at cabinet meetings; she can just sit on his lap. You couldn’t make this up.) If ever there was a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, this is it.
Valls was an obvious if risky choice as prime minister. Polls for months have shown him to be the most popular of the socialists, despite the fact that he has been the government’s most right-wing member. Or maybe because of that. He also has the atypical profile, driving energy, and naked ambition that remind many observers of a certain Nicolas Sarkozy. Like Sarko, he is an outsider, not having attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or other elite schools where France’s chosen few prep for power.
Born in Barcelona 51 years ago, he grew up largely in France but only took citizenship when he was 20. Going into politics, Valls joined the Socialist Party in 1980. He was an acolyte of Michel Rocard, a rival of François Mitterrand whom Mitterrand appointed prime minister in order to compromise his political future by letting him take the heat of unpopular decisions — in France, the president gets the credit when things go well and the premier takes the fall when they don’t. He served as mayor of a Paris suburb for eleven years before running unsuccessfully in the Socialist Party primary in 2011. With a maverick streak, he once suggested reforming the 35-hour workweek, a socialist sacred cow, to be more in tune with the real economy, and floated the idea that the party drop the name “socialist” in favor of something more modern. But he has no hands-on experience in dealing with the economy, France’s biggest problem today.
Cracks and tensions in the new government have already begun showing. Hollande’s important coalition with the Greens was endangered when their leader, formerly the minister of ecology, refused to have anything to do with Valls, whom she accuses of being unkind to illegal immigrants when he was France’s top cop. The foreign and economics ministries were immediately arguing over which would be in charge of foreign trade. Hollande’s decision to keep Christiane Taubira as justice minister was questionable; she and Valls have been at loggerheads on law enforcement and penal reform, and the country’s corps of magistrates mostly detest her. As do the millions of family-oriented conservatives who opposed her pushing through France’s law permitting homosexual marriage. But she is 1) a woman, 2) black, and 3) on the Socialist Party’s left wing, making her Hollande’s sop to those three special interests.
I suspect that Hollande, imitating his political mentor Mitterrand, has made Valls premier in order to eliminate him as a rival. He knows that Valls is going to make a bid for the presidency as soon as he sees his chance. The French Socialist Party is a sinking ship — the latest polls show that less than half of the citizenry has confidence in the new government — and Hollande and Valls will be competing for a lifeboat. Something tells me that this will end badly.