Rarely do local elections anywhere have such profound national resonance. In municipal elections on 30 March, France’s governing Socialist Party (PS) lost more than 150 towns and cities. The centre-right UMP made huge gains, much more than expected.
Members of president François Hollande’s party thought they might limit the damage, given that local politics is often very different from national politics, and France has a long and deep tradition of a “municipal socialism” largely insulated from national concerns. Well, not any more.
Town hall after town hall the left had held for decades went to the opposition, and a dozen of them to the far-right Front National. Limoges, a stronghold since 1912, was lost. Many towns run by the left since World War II were lost as well. The scale of the socialists' defeat is historic – and a humiliating personal defeat for the president, two years into his five-year term. Following on next month are the European elections, now expected to be catastrophic for the governing party.
Even more alarmingly, the local elections saw a “Blue Wave” (“Vague Bleue”) for the centre right, but also a very strong Navy Blue Wave, the “Vague Bleue Marine” – a pun on Marine le Pen of the Front National, whose party won 1,500 councillors in an advance just as historic as the centre-right’s. In Hénin-Beaumont, the FN even won outright on the first round a week earlier.
In some places, round two run-offs between rival lists saw no leftist lists on the ballot at all, just UMP, FN, and independent right (divers droites), as if anything left of centre didn’t exist. The Socialists are in a state of shocked disbelief – and now widespread recriminations and in-fighting at local level will make matters even worse.
In an attempt to salvage the situation, the deeply unpopular president has taken drastic action. On Monday 31 March he sacked his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and in his place appointed the only popular minister in the government, the former interior minister Manuel Valls. Will it work? There are reasons why it might, and reasons why it might not.
Valls is nationally the most popular figure from the left. In fact, he’s almost the most popular figure on the right too. His style is what people want: tough and decisive on crime and security, and well to the right of the whole of his party on virtually everything else. One of his problems is therefore to manage the left of the party. Two astute appointments to his new cabinet, Benoit Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg, should be seen in this light. Hollande’s ex-partner, former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, is also back in government.
Though on the right of the party, Valls is also an immigrant son from a modest background, and was mayor in a deprived area, so knows the lives of ordinary people on the council estates; those who voted FN or didnt vote at all. Second, a new departure was overdue. Hollande and his government could almost not be less popular. With his new, leaner government, Valls has the opportunity to try to get the economy back on track.
The tasks are clear: balance the books and get public spending down, make French businesses more competitive, and reinvigorate the Franco-German alliance and France’s leadership role in Europe. To keep everyone on board, he has also to address a range of social questions, just as any self-respecting leftist government should, in particular the appalling problems in forgotten suburbs where even the police won’t go.
None of this will be easy. These things should have been addressed two years ago when Hollande was elected. Unemployment is still rising horrendously (up by more than 30,000 in February), the deficit is not going down, and national debt is now 93% of GDP. After two years of virtually no change, apart from taxes going up and up, the economic tasks facing the new government are immense. But perhaps more than anything, Valls has to change the culture and attitudes of the French.
France’s vast army of civil servants work for a state that can’t afford them. The added problem for the government is that these middle-class state employees are the PS’s main constituency, since it lost the working class some time ago. France has to become a society where small- and medium-sized firms and start ups are respected and encouraged. That will require a sea change among many myriad vested interests that choke the vitality from French society.
Valls also heralds another fundamental change in French politics. Seemingly without the French having realised it, the events of the last week have turned the Fifth Republic on its head. The prime minister is meant to be a lightning rod, protecting and enhancing the prestige of the president by being taking all the flak and unpopularity directed at his government. This has been the case since 1958 – until last Sunday.
The problem now is that Valls is infinitely more popular than Hollande, and if he is a success, Hollande will therefore not profit from it; all the applause will be for Valls, and he will soon look infinitely more presidential than his president boss. If he doesn’t succeed, both men will be regarded as failures. In appointing Valls, Hollande has played a joker.