Sunday, 30 March 2014

French local elections: Hollande is not the only big loser

A French polling card, one of millions that went unused today
The result of today's French local elections was already a foregone conclusion as early as midday, when the press announced that just 19.83% of the electorate had turned out thus far for the second round.

Meanwhile, opposition UMP and Front National voters had their tails up. They knew they had every chance on capitalising on their first round gains, they were smelling blood, and they have finally got it in the form of a crushing defeat for the socialists and François Hollande.

This was the first national ballot since Hollande's election in May 2012, and as such this shattering defeat effectively represents payback time for a President and government who have been in trouble since the day they were elected. Hollande quickly came under pressure to deliver on his best-known election slogan, which was "I am the enemy of finance", and indeed he did begin his mandate with some harsh news for business and good news for the public. But as the country's financial situation degraded it was soon clear that this honeymoon could, and would, not last. 'Finance' finally picked up the gauntlet and France has been harshly sanctioned by international financial organisations, investors and the credit rating agencies ever since. Finally, disastrous unemployment levels, a catastrophic loss of foreign investment and widespread discontent with the way the country was being run led him to capitulate and tax households to the limit whilst giving tax breaks and other favours to business in a desperate ateempt to stimulate the jobs market.

In other words, disastrous as this result is for François Hollande and his government, it comes as no surprise. The first round resulted in very poor results for the socialists, whereas the UMP and FN did well. The abstention rate last week was 36.45%, and today saw it reach yet another new record high of 38%.

Unsurprisingly, the UMP, which despite the fact that it has had more of it share of problems lately what with a bitterly divided leadership and much internal squabbling, is tonight's big winner, having taken France's fourth-biggest city - Toulouse - as well as Saint-Etienne, Carcassonne, Laval, Quimper, Roubaix, Ajaccio, and many other towns.

The Front National captured a record number of towns, mainly in the south of the country. This tally included some fairly sizeable towns such as Béziers and Fréjus,

As for the Socialists, the pickings were meager, with the victory off Annie Hidalgo in Paris in a closely-fought battle being the only tiny sliver of good news on what has otherwise been an awful day for them, a day during which they lost well over 150 small-to-medium towns.

The future now looks extremely bleak for Hollande, who is widely expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle within the next few days, with PM Jean-Marc Ayrault being tipped to be replaced by either Laurent Fabius or Manuel Valls.

But the biggest loser here isn't Hollande, who is a career politician. After all, he's 'just' a president, and as such he can be replaced. What cannot be replaced however, at least not in the next few years, is the public's lost faith in its institutions and politicians. Today's record high abstention rate and sanction vote are merely the outward signs of a deep malaise in French society, a society that is becoming increasingly alienated from the democratic process and is profoundly cynical about its future prospects.

Successive French governments have tried to put off essential economic and social reforms for as long as possible. But these reforms are slowly but surely being imposed upon a recalcitrant France by globalised trade and a change in the world region pecking order that sees Europe in decline and Asia on the up. Hollande too has been resisting, and although he has done enough to persuade the moneylenders and the EU to stay off his back for a short while, much more needs to be done to catch up on the long years spent neglecting major structural problems in the economy.

France is a country that knows it must change, but is tetanised by fear at the very prospect of having to do so. The people are resigned and dispirited, and the reputation of the ruling classes is as bad as it has ever been in all the 27 years I have lived here.

What France badly needs right now is a president and parliament that can rise to the occasion and persuade the people to support them, however grudgingly, as they seek to get the country back on its feet.

In other words, France needs the one thing it doesn't have today - a pragmatic, charismatic and inspiring leader.