Final thoughts on French parliamentary runoff results

As noted in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s parliament elections, the French left looked likely to take a narrow absolute majority of seats in the Assemblée nationale.

As it turns out, the Parti socialistof François Hollande did even better — it and its allies took 314 seats, not including the 17 seats that its electoral partner, France’s Green Party (Europe Écologie – Les Verts) won: significantly higher than the projection of between 270 and 300 and nearly equivalent to the parliamentary wave after Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election.  In this sense, Hollande’s party actually outperformed Hollande in the presidential race.

But the left’s victory was expected — the pattern of French voters handing a solid presidential majority in June parliamentary elections (following the May presidential runoff) therefore continues.

It will mark the first time that the French left have won control of the government since the 1997 legislative elections; the left lost power in 2002, following Jospin’s surprise third-place finish in the presidential election of that year.

With the final results now counted, here’s a look at each party and its road ahead:

Parti socialiste.  With its allies, the party won 46.8% of the vote — if you add the support for the Greens, it rises to nearly 50%, a very strong showing for the French left generally.  With its 314 seats, Hollande and his prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault should face very little obstruction in pursuing their economic program: higher taxes for the rich in tandem with surgical budget cuts in some areas, but even growth in other areas for government spending, such as employment and education.

Ayrault and foreign minister Laurent Fabius won their seats outright in the first round (by obtaining over 50% of the vote in the first round), but finance minister Pierre Moscovici joined them on Sunday, taking 49% in Doubs 4 (the UMP candidate won 26% and the FN candidate, 24.5%).  In Bouches-du-Rhône 5, Marie-Arlette Carlotti, junior minister for the disabled in Hollande’s government and the only recent Hollande appointee in any real jeopardy on Sunday, held on against her UMP challenger Renaud Muselier, with 51.8% to the UMP’s 48.2%.

One of two big losses for the Socialists was in Vosges 2, where Jack Lang, minister of culture during the 1980s and early 1990s under former president François Mitterand had chosen to run, and where he lost by a vote of 51% to 49% to the UMP’s Gérard Cherpion.

The other “loss,” of course, is that of former Parti socialiste presidential candidate Ségolène Royal in Charente-Maritime 17, where she was defeated by 63% to 37% by a local renegade Socialist candidate, Olivier Falorni.  Falorni refused to drop out of the race, despite pleas from Hollande, Ayrault and others.  By now the story of Hollande’s current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, and her own renegade Tweet in support of Falorni and in opposition to Royal, Hollande’s former partner, is well known — it threatened to overshadow the election campaign last week.  Trierweiler will have done herself some amount of damage for making such a seemingly personal and petty gesture, and Hollande will now have to find a high-profile role for Royal, who campaigned vigorously for Hollande’s presidential campaign. The incident, however distasteful for Hollande, will likely still be overshadowed by his party’s better-than-expected result.

Union pour un mouvement populaire.  All things considered, the French center-right could have done much worse than their 229 seats, given that defeated president Nicolas Sarkozy left promptly for Morocco and a holiday shortly after the French presidential election, leaving his former lieutenants to run a haphazard and defensive campaign.

In Pyrénées-Atlantiques 6, former foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie (who resigned after several missteps during the anti-Ben Ali regime protests in Tunisia) lost to the PS’s Sylviane Alaux 51.6% to 48.4%, and in Meurthe-et-Moselle 5, the outspokenly social conservative Nadine Morano lost handsomely to the PS’s Dominique Potier 56% to 44%, despite appealing directly to Front national supporters.  In Hauts-de-Seine 9, a dissident right-wing candidate, Thierry Solere, defeated former Minister of the Interior Calude Guéant 39.4% to 38.4%, with the PS candidate taking 22.2% in the triangulaire runoff.  

However, in Essonne 4, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, spokesperson for the Sarkozy campaign and a former minister of ecology, defeated Olivier Thomas 51.5% to 48.5%, notwithstanding Marine Le Pen’s vocal opposition to Kosciusko-Morizet.  In Aisne 2, Xavier Bertrand, a former minister of health and labour who served as the spokesperson for Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007, also held on against the PS’s Anne Ferreira 50.25% to 49.75%.

The UMP’s chief allies also survived. In Nord 21, Jean-Louis Borloo, the leader of the Radical Party (generally an ally of the UMP), won reelection with 56% of the vote, but his party was reduced from 18 seats to just 6 overall. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, another former presidential candidate and leader of Debout la République (Arise the Republic), a Gaullist party and another UMP ally, won his race in Essonne 8 with 61%.

Bertrand and Kosciusko-Morizet, no doubt, will go on to have high-profile roles in the French right’s attempt to return to power in 2017.  But for now, the UMP can breathe a sigh of relief that its own internal disarray and a resurgent far-right political movement did not result in a complete wipeout.  Attention will now focus on what is expected to be a brutal battle for control of the UMP between former prime minister François Fillon and the more hard-line UMP party president Jean-François Copé.

Front national.  Although the far-right will claim to be delighted at having won two seats in the Assemblée nationale, the reality is that the two-round parliamentary election system is brutal for third parties.  While it is true that the party has won the greater number of deputies since 1986, the result has to be a disappointment for a party that hopes to challenge the UMP as the main vehicle of the French right.  Two deputies, and a high-profile loss for the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, is a disappointing result after Le Pen won third place in the presidential election with the support of nearly one out of every five French voters and after the party won 13.6% in the first round of the parliamentary elections.

In Pas-de-Calais 11, Marine Le Pen only very narrowly lost to the PS‘s Philippe Kemel by a vote of 50.11% to 49.89% after winning the first round with a staggeringly high 42% (Kemel edged out the Front de gauche‘s national leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon for second place in the first round, which had become something of a far left-far right showdown; Mélenchon subsequently withdrew from the runoff in favor of Kemel).

On the bright side for the Front national, in Vaucluse 3, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, narrowly defeated the UMP’s Jean-Michel Ferrand 42.1% to 35.8% (with a Parti socialiste candidate winning 22.1%).  In another triangulaire, the Front national‘s Gilbert Collard defeated Katy Guyot in Gard 2 by an even more narrow vote of 42.8% to 41.6%, despite the fact that the UMP incumbent, Etienne Mourrut, won 15.6% as well.

From here, Marine Le Pen will continue to move her party further to the center of French politics (not so incredibly difficult, considering that Sarkozy and others in the UMP have co-opted so much of the Front national‘s message on crime and on immigration) and continue building her party’s machine in advance of regional and European elections, with the aim of taking advantage of popular discontent with the mainstream center-right and tumult within the UMP in order to propel the Front national for the 2017 effort.

Front de gauche.  Given the electricity that Mélenchon’s presidential campaign attracted in the spring, his 11% fourth-place finish was a disappointment.  But his own third-place loss in the Hénin-Beaumont and the Front de gauche‘s 6.9% support in the first round of the parliamentary elections were even more disappointing.  In one bright spot on Sunday, communist Gaby Charroux handily defeated the Front national‘s Béatrix Espallardo 60% to 40% in Bouches-du-Rhône 13.  Yet in Oise 6, communist Patrice Carvalho was able to defeat François-Michel Gonnot by 42.7% to 36.9% only because the Front national won 20.3% of the vote (he won the seat in a similar triangulaire situation in 1997).

In a year during which the broad left has performed exceedingly well, the Front de gauche won just 10 seats — the Parti communist français, itself the largest member of the Front de gauche, won 15 seats by itself in 2007.  So it would not be surprising to see the Front de gauche transform back into its component parts, and it remains to be seen whether Mélenchon will continue to have an influence on French politics, notwithstanding his charisma.
Mouvement démocrate.  In Pyrénées-Atlantiques 2, Nathalie Chabanne wiped out Mouvement démocrate leader François Bayrou by a margin of 42.7% to 30.2%; Bayrou only narrowly won more support than the UMP’s Eric Saubatte (27.0%).  Bayrou, whose popularity crested with a third-place finish in the 2007 presidential election, could not repeat the effort in 2012, finishing fifth with around 9%, behind both Le Pen and Mélenchon.  This time around, the UMP specifically targeted him, due to his endorsement of Hollande over Sarkozy, after years of supporting him in this district.

In Pyrénées-Atlantiques 4, the MoDem’s Jean Lasalle held on against the PS’s François Maitia only by a narrow 51% to 49%.  He will join Thierry Robert — who was elected, rather idiosyncratically, from la Réunion, the Indian Ocean island — as one of only two MoDem deputies in the Assemblée nationale.

Although some commentators noted that only Bayrou was honest enough to sound the alarm over the French deficit and the danger of the sovereign debt crisis spreading from the periphery of the eurozone to France, it was a message to which most voters did not seem receptive, and it seems clear that his third-way centrist path has not succeeded in transforming the French political scene.

Les verts.  France’s greens should rightfully be delighted with their 17 seats — they will be the only party (other than the Parti socialiste and the UMP) to form a parliamentary group in the Assemblée nationale, which will give them an enhanced role in parliamentary debates.  But they should have no delusions — their 17 seats owe entirely to the Parti socialiste‘s decision (which party leaders may now regret) to form an electoral pact with the EELV and to stand down in various constituencies in favor of EELV candidates.  After all, this is a party whose presidential candidate won less than 2.5% of the vote back in April and that won only 5.5% in the first round of the parliamentary elections.

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