One adult French citizen out of two bothered to take part in the counties’ elections last month. This turnout is well under the 70% or 80% who vote in the presidential election, or even the 65% or so who vote in the legislative election. However, it is higher than the European election average, which lags at barely 40%.
The rationale behind such figures is that the more the French understand about an election, the more prepared they are to take part in it. They do understand that their national president and parliament matter, and they understand how they are selected. However, they suspect the European Parliament to be an empty shell, and the real European powers to lie with the unelected European Commission.
As for their counties, they are of two minds: they agree that local powers are important, but they are not sure whether their present 101 counties (départements) are still relevant. Since WWII, counties have been superseded in many ways by the larger regions. New reforms are under way which may lead both to the abolition of counties and to the creation of just a few super-regions.
Moreover, a bizarre electoral law was introduced this year for the counties’ ballots. It provides for parité, the arithmetic equal representation of women and men.
Citizens don’t vote for one representative, but for a man/woman “binome.”
Strangely enough, nobody questioned the constitutionality of such a provision, which clearly turns biology into a discriminating factor in French politics and could be construed as a precedent for very ominous moves in the future. What actually confused many voters was that this law represents a new layer of electoral complexity, The French don’t have unified laws for all elections. They switch constantly from one set of laws to the other, from the first-past-the-post system to proportional representation, according to each particular case.
The beauty of democracy, however, is that it works even under strained or improbable circumstances.
The French made good use of an ill-defined and ill-shaped election to express their views about their future. They rejected the present socialist administration of François Hollande, which proved to be both unreliable and inefficient. Even more importantly, they preferred former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s classic Right to Marine Le Pen’s “populism,” a strange blend of far-Right and far-Left views.
On the first ballot on March 22, the global classic Right (Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party and smaller groups) garnered 36.6% of the vote. On the face of it, the global Left did as well or even better with 36.7 % of the vote. But the global Right was much more compact and united than the global Left. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which was supposed to emerge as a rival for the classic Right, stayed well behind at 25.4%.
On the second ballot on March 29, the global Right got 45% of the vote, thus crushing both the global Left (32.12%) and the National Front (22.30%). Sarkozy is clearly (and some say, unexpectedly) now restored as the legitimate champion of the Right, and a likely winner along with UMP of the 2017 presidential and parliamentary election.
Sarkozy relied on a two-edged strategy. On one hand, he ran a tough campaign on many issues that are usually seen as the preserve of the National Front, including the jihadist threat and the need to bring back patriotic values. Moreover, he did not tell his voters to vote for the Left rather than for the National Front in those constituencies where the classic Right was too weak to make it by itself.
On the other hand, he distanced himself from the National Front platform by referring to it as something “impractical” which could not possibly be translated into real life. Marine Le Pen succceeded in avoiding the racist or anti-Semitic statements her father — Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s founder — was and still is fond of. (Even Roger Cukierman, the chairman of the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations, gave her credit for that.) However, she stands for radical options most French people are not in favor of: leaving the European Union, forsaking the euro, engaging in a statist and near autarkic economic experience, reneging on NATO and the American alliance, and striking a deal with Putin’s Russia.
Sarkozy’s strategy paid off. From now on, the chances are that Marine Le Pen loses both her conservative wing and her Marxist wing, which may swing back to the Left.
There is a lesson here for conservatives in other countries, including for the GOP in America: be staunchly conservative and discard any shade of political correctness, while avoiding extremism. Conservatism was born with Edmund Burke as the rejection of French Revolution utopianism. The essence of conservatism to this day is to frown upon utopias, even right-wing ones.