Rock, Paper, Scissors – Witnessing the Dynamics of a Three-Party Election in France

Decisions regarding the primary elections in the US are upon us. Whether orientated towards the Democratic or Republican party we are in a position to seriously influence the direction of our government.

One of the nice things regarding voter choice this year is the availability of a broad variety of candidates. It’s a year for outsiders. The left can claim Bernie Sanders, a man who broke Barack’s previous record for individual campaign contributions and a candidate often branded as leaning distinctly socialist.

Bernie also has his rightist equivalent. Donald Trump is in many regards the mirror image of Bernie Sanders. He’s a political outsider, privately funded, and thus not beholden to conventional party doctrine. In this regard, both Bernie and the Donald bear a similar advantage: they can function independent of party groupthink and are in a position to offer different strategies outside of prevailing wisdom, an appealing options for voters frustrated with the traditional bi-partisan entrenchments. The fundamental difference is branding; the appeal to very different constituencies.

Americans on both sides of the aisle are lucky for the choices thrust upon them. We, in effect, are enjoying a “multi-party” system.” But the phenomena is not unique. What if “outsiders” were always available?

Rock, Paper, Scissors

The race for National Presidency in France is coming in 2017. Just recently, at the end of 2015 were elections for regional presidencies in France, a position somewhat similar to a US governor, albeit with limited powers.

The “regions” of France do not hold nearly the same influence as States in the US. A regional president, cannot, for example, write laws for the region. A regional executive can, however, levy taxes, and check a local budget against the national government. This influence includes the conduction of local infrastructure, transportation, education up to the university level, and even the aiding of local businesses.

This budgetary control is of particular interest in light of a recent redistricting in the country. Aside from governments in Corsica and executive powers overseas that regulate the remnants of the French Empire, continental France has traditionally been cut up into 23 regions, which as of this recent election, have condensed into just 12 areas. Furthermore, the Parti Socialiste has been the incumbent party, not just in regional presidencies, but also on the national level under President François Hollande. During the previous regional terms only one continental region has been claimed by the Republicans; an area recently joined with two of its neighbors following redistricting. In light of these developments, the Socialists have a lot to lose should they fail to hold on to the incumbency. A win in any of the redistricted regions is a broader victory for the party who can claim the local positions.

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In 2010 the Socialist Party won the overwhelming majority of Regional Presidencies. As of the 2015 elections regions have been combined creating a greater prize for the party who can take them.

The Climate Leading into the Elections

Current international issues for French voters could be grouped into two broad categories. The relationship with supranational organizations, particularly the EU, and the question of unregulated large-scale migration from the Middle East and Africa.

Although specific strategies adopted by the PS in regards to French austerity seem to flip-flop, the consistent goal has been a reduction of public services to the ends of financing a €40 billion tax cut on businesses designed to create jobs by 2017. The Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, continues to periodically push through unpopular austerity measures independent of parliament approval.

The sloppy maneuvering of peripheral Eurozone countries after the adoption of the common currency are the root cause of many of the problems affecting France’s traditionally robust economy today. Although there is a strong case to be made for prudently warding off continued recession in the Eurozone under the mandates dictated by Germnay, average citizens are gradually coming to resent footing the bill for the folly of their lower performing neighbors, and frustrated with policy that seems to regard the impositions of trans-national entities such as the EU and IMF instead of prioritizing the interests of the French citizenry. In a somewhat similar vein, many French oppose playing the assumed role as NATO ally, seemingly fruitless EU sanctions against Russia, and the refugee issues exacerbated by prolonged conflict in Syria.

In America, much of the conversation regarding the accommodation of refugees revolves around the plausibility of extremist elements among the migrant populations. The jihadist attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and the more recent attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of over 130 people certainly provoke the conversation in Europe as well. However, it is worth considering the unpopularity of migrant communities often exists independent of any suspicions of terrorist activity.

The small city of Calais, for example, in the north of France, hosts a community of several thousand migrants housed in tent cities, and recently shipping containers-turned-rough apartments. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but a conservative estimate put’s this population about 3,000. Calais is the closest place in the country to the UK. As a result, many migrants make nightly attempts to cross the English Chanel by smuggling themselves aboard container trucks or traversing the underground highway that connects the two countries. Citizens of the city have reported an increase in physical assault and theft, and choked highways have become the scenes of riots and skirmishes between police and migrants. It is worth noting, that these communities are not attempting to integrate into the French economy, but are instead hedging bets on illegally entering the UK, a factor not lost on the French citizenry. The mayor of Calias blames the phenomena on impressions of the UK’s broad system of economic entitlements; an irony considering that the UK does not expend appreciable more resources on integrating refugees than does France.

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In the port city of Calais migrants risk their lives in attempts to stow away on container trucks bound for the UK.

The Main Parties & Election Results

Enter Front National (FN), a far-right party known for its anti-immigrant, anti-EU stance. In response to a question regarding the key demands of her government, FN president Marine Le Pen said, “The people are the only legitimate sovereigns. Today they have sold our sovereign liberty little by little to the European Union..” This sentiment is gaining traction among voters. Although the party has never held a regional presidency, they have contributed roughly a third of France’s 74 European Parliament Members, and the National Front was leading in 6 of the 13 regions where they had placed candidates after the first round of voting. These leads were not enough to secure any seats, as a majority of support is required for first round victory, and the vote was split relatively evenly along the three main parties.

The FN was created by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. However the party has recently been making conspicuous attempts to distance itself from its founder. Marine even went as far to eject her father from the party in August 2015 shortly following an interview he had with Rivarol, a publication that hosts far-right anti-Semitic thinking. In the interview he doubled-down on earlier statements, expressing things to the effect that Pétainists have a place in the FN; referring to the politics of Philippe Pétain, chief of state in France from 1940-44, whose government was characterized by its anti-Semetic statues and alliance with Nazi Germany.

This expulsion follows a recent effort to rebrand the party away from its anti-Semitic image, a damning reputation in a country that is host to Europe’s largest Jewish community. To quote FN vice president Louis Aliot:

“the only glass ceiling I saw, it wasn’t immigration or Islam. It’s antisemitism that stops people voting for us. There’s only that. From the moment you get rid of this ideological barrier you free up the rest. Ever since I’ve known her, Marine Le Pen agrees with that.”

The incumbent Parti Socialiste (PS) may have been spooked by the rising popularity of the National Front, as revealed by their tactics following the first round of elections. In three regions where the FN held significant leads, the Socialists ordered their candidates to withdraw from the race. One candidate refused, presuming to risk a possible FN victory in favor of a certain yielding of PS control in the region for the next six-year term. Socialist voters in key regions were also instructed to vote for the center-right Les Républicains (LR), galvanizing support against the National Front. These tactics did function to their stated purpose, the FN did not manage to claim a single presidential seat. However, the PS lost serious ground to the Republicans, the later winning 7 of the 12 continental seats.

“A veteran like Sarkozy likely understood that his center-right organization held the high ground among a citizenry slowly gravitating right, and held the course despite the increasing support of a fringe party.”

 

Tactical voting may have, however, been the only valid choice for the PS. Aside from the recent expulsions of top party members by president Hollande in an effort to unify party direction, the Socialists are a known quantity. A rebranding effort is questionable and dwindling support was something to expect. Perhaps yielding to the center-right was preferable to the possibility of a fringe party such as the FN gaining any posts, and thus legitimizing themselves administratively prior to the 2017 bid for the national presidency.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech after the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy may be in a position to put the Republicans at the head of the government. 

Nicolas Sarkozy, head of LR and former national president, may have sensed the Socialists blench. In contrast to the methods of the PS, Sarkozy went as far to oust from his party former Transport Minister and Vice-Persident, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet after she refused to support his call to reject tactical voting in the regional elections. A veteran like Sarkozy likely understood that his center-right organization held the high ground among a citizenry slowly gravitating right, and held the course despite the increasing support of a fringe party.

 

It is worth considering that the numbers over the years for the second round of voting in the reginal elections typically are significantly greater than turnout in the first round. In 2015, there was 31% increase in voter turnout from the first round to the second round. This is less than the turnout in 2010, which saw a 35% increase. 2010 neither saw a plausible third party threat, that being a rather lean year for FN support, less than 10% of the total vote during the second round, compared to a record breaking 27.1% these elections. These statistics suggest that first round support is no reliable indicator of eventual success, but also counter the line of thinking that a cross-coalition of voters hit the polls in greater numbers in the second round of 2015 specifically to counter the threat of the FN.

Fallout

While leftists saw the checking of the FN in the second round as a victory, the Republicans are more ideologically akin to the Front than they are to the Socialists. Like the Front, Sarkozy expresses many anti-immigrant and anti-EU positions, and this rhetoric has recently been ratcheted up. Unlike the Front, however, LR enjoys support and popularity among France’s large Jewish community.

Sarkozy reiterated his support with comments as a guest on a Jan 10th dinner in London hosted by the Conference of European Rabbis. His words at the event reveal that the right-leaning Sarkozy leverages the refugee issue to gain the support of an integrated minority whose cultural being might be considered antithetical to the Islamification of France. In the past year there has been a rise in anti-Semetic crime and French Jews are emigrating to Israel in record numbers; 7,000 in the past year, according to the Israeli Immigration Ministry

Regardless of one’s position on immigration, or the concept of national participation in supranational organizations such as NATO or the EU, there is something to be learned in observing the three-party dynamic in France. It seems that entrenched parties may be forced to compromise, or at least address positions outside of their rhetoric, or run the risk of losing serious influence. Such was the Socialists’ yielding to the Republicans as a preventative measure against the very real threat of FN administrative influence, and hence a track record as a serious organization with leadership experience. This jostling for power among several rival parties might prove expedient in realizing popular changes in government structure and activity, as opposed to the inevitable back and forth ping-pong match that is the continual exchange between American Democrats and Republicans. A party should not be comfortable in a democratic society, and ought never be secure in its power when at odds with a mobilized voting population.

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