A Pink Wave or Sarko's Follies?


The Left in France is crowing this morning.

After being comprehensively beaten in the last municipal elections (in 2001) and after demoralising defeats in both the presidential and parliamentary elections last year, the French Socialist Party (PS) yesterday made historic and sweeping gains in the second and final round of this year’s French municipal ballot.

Thanks to the magic of the TV tally room on TF1 and its online spinoff, results started coming in almost immediately after 8:00pm, when voting across the country ended. Despite some contrarian pockets like Calais where leftist mayors were dumped for one from the Right, it was soon clear that the Socialists had pulled off a resounding victory.

Paris and Lyon, cities that had been PS strongholds back in 2001 remained so; but as the night wore on, an embarrassing number of France’s middle-tier cities and towns – Reims, Amiens, Toulouse, Strasbourg – fell into the hands of Leftist administrators. Of the top ten French cities in terms of population, the Right now controls only Bordeaux, Nice and Marseille – and it only barely won in the latter.

The Left, as is its wont, flicked the switch to grandiloquence. Ségolène Royal, the defeated Socialist presidential candidate in 2007, said: "We have to … transform this vote of sanction into a vote for the future … We need to repair what the government has destroyed and damaged over the past eight months."

François Hollande, the Chairman of the Socialist Party, immediately claimed that Sunday’s victory gave his party a "countervailing power" against the Government of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon, both of whom come from the Centre-Right party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

This bubble of Socialist self-satisfaction was abruptly popped by the remarkably unpleasant Jean-François Copé, the leader of the UMP in the Assemblée nationale (or Lower House of the French Parliament), who interpreted his Party’s defeat as due to a "combination of discontents and the restless". He then asked sarcastically what the Socialists were going to do with their new countervailing force, because the UMP was going to be in power for another five years, anyway. So there!

This sizzling repartee sounded remarkably familiar to someone who had watched the worst excesses of John Howard’s bovver boy brigade in Canberra indulging in the same kind of schoolyard rhetoric for over a decade.

Unfortunately for the French Left, Copé has a valid point.

It is undoubtedly true that Sunday’s vote for around 37,000 mayors and their councillors will confirm that France is now predominantly socialist at the level of local government, and will remain so for the next six years. Yes, these elections were all about local issues and personalities, local services and local frustrations. But like everything else in France, the second round of the municipal elections was also all about Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Sarko" is everywhere in this country. Every morning, news radio tells the French what Sarko’s done or not done the night before, and what he’s about to do today; the nightly TV news has footage of and commentary about same; and the covers of every newspaper and magazine feature his mug in various contorted poses nearly every day.

And there’s no doubt that the President likes it this way. His personal style, as built for and delivered to the ever-hungry media, is built around his being a workaholic, not connected to the French elite or ruling classes, and warmly connected to "les people" (film stars and other celebrities). As one comedian recently put it: Sarko used to be in "le biz" [business], since becoming President he’s now in "le showbiz".

The extent of the media’s Sarko-mania is quite surprising to a postcolonial boy from the antipodes. I now think I know what it must have felt like for a minor courtier under Louis XIV in Versailles – for whom the Sun King’s agenda, mood, bodily functions, and choice of mistress for the evening were of utter importance, if not a matter of life-and-death.

For a while after his win in last year’s presidential elections, Sarko rode a wave of unprecedented popularity in France – hitting approval ratings usually reserved for footballers, swimmers and crocodile hunters back in Australia.

Some divisive legislation, a few unsavoury public outbursts and a sluggish economy saw his ratings slip dramatically by the beginning of 2008. And then a quickie divorce, a whirlwind romance and marriage with ex-model and alleged pop-singer Carla Bruni, and repeated appearances around the world wearing designer sunglasses, have made Sarko an object of open ridicule. The writer Pascal Bruckner recently characterised Sarko’s style as "Chirac in Ray-Bans" (a particularly biting insult for a man who is still feuding with previous President and mentor Jacques Chirac).

Sarko’s singular style, where all decisions of government seemed to be decisions of Sarko, worked well for the UMP when the President was popular. Now, they’re not so sure. It’s a peculiarity of French politics that many ministers are also mayors – maintaining a fiefdom in the provinces in the same way that the nobility did in days of yore. Because of Sarko’s rampant unpopularity many UMP mayoral candidates chose not to invite the President along for the campaign and Sarko himself had to downplay the importance of the municipal elections when it was clear that UMP would face an uphill battle.

Two recent covers on the daily newspaper, Libération, railed that the French were seeking a "Real President" and after the first round of the municipal elections last Monday that it was starting to smell like spring for the Left. But the indictment of Sarko of the unforgivable crime of "lèse-majesté" (causing an affront to the dignity of the office of President) is increasingly coming from all sides, not just a self-regarding and increasingly self-satisfied Left.

The significance of these municipal elections will obviously play out over the next few years. ‘Sarkozysme’ has been stalled for months. Sarko’s promises to reform an admittedly schlerotic bureaucracy have either not eventuated or been scatter-gun efforts with little obvious effect. The Left, too often riven by internal "ideological" differences in the past and utterly gutted by last year’s double defeats, has been allowed to re-group and form a (relatively) united front.

Sarkozy and the UMP could interpret the results of the municipal elections in one of two ways. Either Sunday’s vote is a warning shot and a taste of the dire consequences of continuing down the Sarkozy Road; or the swing to the Left at the local government level could convince ‘l’omni-président’ and his claque of advisers that time is of the essence, and they need to press on quickly with the task of modernising the French State.

Either way, the record abstention rate of 34.5 per cent will help convince politicians and number-crunchers from all sides that there’s still hope, come the 2012 presidential elections.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.