French Voters Shift to the Right [and towards the Patriotic Alternative] in Mayoral Elections
by Alissa J Rubin and Lilia Blaise
PARIS — French voters dealt a blow to the government of M Francois Hollande on Sunday, rejecting left-leaning candidates for local office in at least 155 cities while embracing more conservative politicians and in a host of contests, the patriotic Front National.
One bright spot for M Hollande was in Paris, where Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party candidate, was elected mayor, becoming the first woman to serve in that job and one of a still small cadre of female mayors of large cities.
“I am the first woman mayor of Paris; I know the challenge this represents,” said Ms Hidalgo, 54, who was born in Spain, moved to France as a toddler and became a citizen while a teenager.
“I will be the mayor of Paris, a city that never cheats its ideals or its honour,” she told supporters.
Elsewhere, however, the Socialists lost former strongholds like Toulouse and Limoges, as well as many smaller towns. Manuel Valls, the interior minister, announced late on Sunday that the Socialists had lost at least 155 mayoralties in cities with more than 9,000 people. A rare bright spot for the Socialists was Avignon, a major tourist destination known for its prestigious summer arts festival. Just a week earlier the Front National topped the poll there.
The poor showing by the Parti Socialiste was expected to result in a cabinet reshuffle by M Hollande and a change in prime ministers as early as Monday.
Financial uncertainty cast a long shadow over the elections, as M Hollande’s efforts to reverse the downturn showed few results even as overall confidence began to rise, according to some economic indicators. Unemployment is above average in several of the municipalities in which the Front National did well, including Hénin-Beaumont and Béziers, where the rate is close to 20 per cent, according to economic surveys and the French government’s statistical agency, Insee.
Overall, unemployment in France at the end of 2013 was about 11 per cent, just below the European average of 12 per cent, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the current prime minister, gave a sombre speech on Sunday evening as the votes were still being counted in some places. “Tonight is a moment of truth, and this is a defeat for the government,” he said.
“The mid-term elections are an opportunity for citizens to send a message. This message is clear and must be heard,” he said.
Mainstream ‘conservatives’ from the Union for a Popular Movement expressed satisfaction with their party’s showing.
“The message that the French sent us this evening is very clear: They expressed a scathing rejection of the left,” said Jean-François Copé, the party’s leader. “The explosion of insecurity and unemployment was unbearable.”
The gains by the Front National are even more dramatic than forecast last week by the party itself, after the first round of voting for mayors and councillors, with exit polls indicating that the party will win about ten mayoralties in cities of more than 10,000. According to the preliminary official results from the Interior Ministry, at least two of those victories were in sizeable municipalities: Béziers, in the south, and Fréjus, not far from Marseilles, with populations of 70,000 and 52,000 respectively.
The ministry also said that nationwide the Front National had elected 934 local council members. Subsequently, the BBC reported that the Front National had won control of thirteen municipalities and taken 1400 council seats. It has never held more than 500 before, so this is a very impressive increase and allows it to have a presence in a number of localities even where it does not have mayors.
Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, gave a resolute speech in which she asserted that “the Front National has been born as an autonomous political force.”
She added, “This is only the beginning,” alluding to the European ‘parliament’ elections that will be held at the end of May, in which her party is expected to do well. Senate elections will be held in September.
Béziers was won by Robert Ménard, who was endorsed by the Front National although he did not run as a party member. He is a former head of Reporters Without Borders who styles himself as a political maverick.
While the largest prize the Front National was seeking, the city of Perpignan in southern France, with a population of 117,000, eluded it, the patriot party won Fréjus with a young part- Jewish candidate, David Rachline. According to the Le Monde website, reaction to his victory led to clashes requiring the police to restore order.
Nearly 64 percent of voters went to the polls on Sunday, the Interior Ministry said, a slightly lower percentage than in the second round of the 2008 municipal elections.