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Conservatives Triumph Over Ruling Left In French Local Elections

France’s ruling Socialist Party loses out after massive gains by right-wing opposition UNP party led by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in local ballot.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Mar 30 2015, 10:00pm

Former French President and conservative party UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy gives a speech following the final round of French local elections, in Paris, France, Sunday, March 29, 2015. Photo by Thibault Camus/AP

France's opposition right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and its centrist allies scored a major victory in Sunday's local departmental elections, which are seen as a litmus test for French public opinion ahead of the 2017 presidential elections.

The wins came at the expense of France's ruling Socialist Party (PS), which lost 25 departments to the right in Sunday's vote, with only one department swinging the other way. Overall, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP gained control of 66 departments — sub-regional divisions that are governed by elected councilors, who oversee local services including roads, education, social services and tourism.

President Francois Hollande's PS won in only 34 departments — almost half of the departments it previously controlled. This is the party's fourth electoral defeat in 12 months, following the loss of its Senate majority in September 2014, and defeats in municipal and European elections.

The most crushing defeat for the party is the loss of the southwestern department of Corrèze, Hollande's home seat, which has been controlled by the PS since 2008.

Related: France's Far-Right National Front Finishes Second in First Round of Local Elections

Results across France: right-wing departments in blue, left-wing departments in pink.

Voter participation was also up this year, compared with similar elections in 2011. The abstention rate was estimated at 50 percent over the weekend — slightly higher than the 49.83 percent abstention rate recorded a week ago, during the first round of voting.

Historic gains but no outright win for the FN
Despite failing to win any departments in the second round, Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front (FN) party has come out of the election stronger than ever after important gains in the first round.

The FN won 62 individual seats on Sunday — the party's best result in a local election since its launch in 1972. While the FN's win represents only 3.02 percent of all seats, Sunday's gains highlight the mainstreaming of France's far-right, and crystallize Le Pen's efforts to expand the party's foothold in local government.

Addressing FN voters on Sunday, party leader Le Pen called the results "a magnificent success." Later, she tweeted that the FN now had "local elected officials everywhere in France, who will help secure future victories."

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has waged a fierce campaign against Le Pen and her party, described the FN's gains Sunday as "the mark of a long-term upheaval in the political landscape."

In March, Valls previously called FN, which holds a vehement anti-immigration policy stance, "an immense and obvious danger."

FN's electoral gains over the weekend were in part a result of Le Pen's efforts to soften the party's image, which have helped establish it as a legitimate third player in French politics that now enjoys a wider-than-ever support base.

Opinion polls have further predicted that Le Pen could make it through to the second round of the 2017 presidential election, where she would square off against leaders of the French right or the left.

In the 2002 presidential elections, Le Pen's father and FN founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, knocked out socialist candidate Lionel Jospin to face UMP candidate Jacques Chirac in a second round runoff. But in the end, socialist voters rallied around conservative candidate Chirac to effectively block Jean-Marie Le Pen from gaining power.

Historically, candidates from either side have often rallied to block the FN, forming temporary alliances in order to limit the spread of the far-right.

Speaking to VICE News on Monday, Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), explained that because the FN is excluded from this form of bi-partisan teamwork, the party often fails to translate popular support into seats.

"The FN's problem is that it's a party with no allies, no friends," Cautrès said. "The two-ballot system makes it necessary to rally voters from the first round."

The flailing French left
Sunday's results have delivered a new blow to President Hollande and his party. Despite a brief hike in approval ratings following the government's handling of the January terror attacks that left 17 dead in and around Paris, confidence in the PS is once again very low, particularly on issues such as unemployment, which reached a record high toward the end of 2014.

Speaking on Sunday, UMP leader Sarkozy called the results "a disavowal of the government" by voters and said that, "The French had massively rejected the policies of François Hollande and his government."

Prime minister Valls acknowledged that the public, through their votes, have expressed "fatigue and anger" at daily life, but denied there was an "urgent need for a reshuffle" within the PS — similar to the one made in 2014, following the party's heavy defeat in local elections.

Cautrès agreed that a reshuffle would cause Hollande's party more harm than good.

"The PS already changed prime minister following the 2014 municipal elections," he said. "It would give the impression that the party has knee-jerk reactions, and bends to the pressure of results."

Cautrès also highlighted the internal split within the French left, where a group comprised of a "left-wing" minority and green party officials have challenged the government's economic policy of late, particularly the government's proposal to make 4 billion euro ($4.3 billion) in unspecified cuts in 2015.

According to Cautrès, many left-wing voters who sided with Hollande in the second round of the 2012 elections now feel deceived by his increasingly center-left policies.

On Thursday, France's newly-elected councilors will select council presidents for their departments. In the few districts where there is no clear majority — such as the southern department of Vaucluse or the northern department of Aisne — FN councilors will take on the role of arbiter, and will be able to make the deciding vote in a process that has been dubbed "the third round" of the French departmental elections.

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho

Image of Manuel Valls via Fondapol/Flickr