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After the French Cantonal elections: Where now?

Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn: Will they still be smiling next year?

The French Cantonal elections are hardly exciting and perhaps this is why over 55% of voters stayed at home in the second round of voting today. However, a year before the Presidential elections they show some pointers for the future. Coupled with the Ipsos poll on first round preferences for a Presidential election the heat is really on the incumbent at the Elysée Palace. The two polls respectively make grim reading for the Sarkozy camp and worryingly show their vote eroding as the Front National’s vote grows.

Opinion polls are showing that Dominque Strauss-Kahn (DSK) is the Parti Socialiste candidate with the best chance of winning and his lead over his rivals within the party is growing with each poll. He should secure the candidature on two provisos: that he returns from the IMF (which is a given in political circles) and that he can win the Socialist primary. This should happen as long as no other skeletons don’t come out of his closet. No one should write off the PS leader Martine Aubrey just yet, who remains in the wings but seems to lack the appeal of her rival. Perhaps it is time for change and for the PS returning to the Elysée for the first time since Mitterand left office 16 years ago.

However, the concern is that the centre ground is giving way to extremism. The unique French two-round election system where the top two candidates in the first round run-off in a second has resulted in increased speculation as to who the second candidate might be in the second round. Most polls point to a DSK-Le Pen run-off with the President and his UMP Party facing the prospect of humiliating defeat in the first round (Tonight’s poll: DSK 31%; Le Pen 21%; Sarkozy 17%). The thought of seeing a FN candidate in a second round less than a decade after Le Pen senior achieved the same feat in 2002 would be a disaster for mainstream politics in France.

Better that the French political parties do some soul-searching before the Presidential elections than after and make it a PS-UMP race. It seems right now that the lessons of the 2002 election and the general angst in seeing a FN candidate in the second round run-off have all been forgotten.

The UMP has tried in recent months to become more nationalistic and tried to pander to the FN agenda. This led to many Socialist-leaning supporters politely (and in one case mysteriously) leaving the UMP-fold e.g. Bernard Kouchner and Rama Yade. Attacks on Roma, migrants, niqab have done little for the President’s own popularity and made it nearly impossible for those left-leaning politicians to stay within the Government. The national debate on French identity will be replaced this year with a 5th April Government sponsored debate on Islam and secularism which resulted in Sarkozy’s own diversity advisor resigning this week. This is an odd approach for a President who reinvented big ten politics in France. Using nationalism and xenophobia to garner votes is unacceptable and that this tactic seems to have misfired can only be welcomed. Perhaps the UMP have for the first time tonight the UMP realised this as the party’s Secretary-General has gone for all out attack on Le Pen. Is this a glimmer of hope or is this simply a one-off that as many suspect will see the governing party will return to its odd flirtation with narrow nationalism.

The UMP have other options which admittedly are unlikely but could avoid their own meltdown. One would be to find a new candidate and revitalise the centre-right in the next year. This is not easy. Sarkozy is known to be vain and quick to decapitate anyone who becomes popular within his party. He is quick to dispose of political threats. Only his wily Prime Minister François Fillon has missed the axe through clever politicking. There are heirs-apparents to the leadership of the UMP: Fillon himself, the widely respected Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and perhaps the controversial Alain Juppé. It might be doubtful whether any could win the election but perhaps avoid the collapse of the centre right in the same way as the centre left effectively collapsed after the Mitterand era.

The other option is that Sarkozy finds again some of the big tent politics that won him the presidency in the first place, hopes for an improved economy, makes himself look more Presidential, exposes the FN for what they are etc. This is doubtful but not impossible. The PS should win next year’s election but whether your sympathies lie on the left or right: a second round runoff between the centre right and centre left parties has to be a desired outcome. Other possibilities would mean something very wrong has happened to French politics (again) and that is no cause for celebration.

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