Local elections were held across France yesterday. These elections are called the cantonales — the canton is an electoral district in a département, of which there are about 100 in France. The winners of the cantonales become "departmental councilors" — the closest American equivalent would probably be county commissioners.
Our département, for example, the Loir-et-Cher, is made up of 30 cantons, one of which is centered on Saint-Aignan. The Blois area — Blois is by far the largest town in the département and is its administrative "capital" — is divided into five cantons.
Analysts are saying that the big loser in these local elections was the UMP party headed by current French president Nicolas Sarkozy (age 56). And the big winner, politically, was the party that up to now has been called the French "hard right" — the Front National, headed up by a 42-year-old woman named Marine Le Pen, the daughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen (age 82). The UMP got 20% of the total vote nationally, and the FN got about 12%.
The Front National didn't win many seats on departmental councils this time, but it greatly increased its share of the vote. That's a bad sign for Sarkozy and his center-right party.
The winner in terms of percentage of votes won was the Parti Socialiste, with 36%. The abstention rate was very high, with fewer than half the eligible voters actually going to the polls. Even so, on the right, Le Pen's Front National seems to be on the rise and Sarkozy's UMP seems to be on the decline. My impression is that Sarkozy has adopted policies and rhetoric aimed at pulling more right-wing voters into his party, but his efforts have backfired by giving the extreme-right FN new respectability.
All this is important in France because it shows the current balance of political power just about a year before the next presidential elections are to be held. Sarkozy will in all likelihood be a candidate for re-election. The socialists haven't yet chosen a candidate. Marine Le Pen will run.
If Sarkozy and Le Pen divide the right-wing vote, it will be easier for the socialist candidate to win a majority in the presidential polling. The election takes place in two rounds, and the final result depends on who the two top vote-getters are in the first round.
In 2002, for example, the two top vote-getters in the first round of voting were the two right-wing candidates, the center-right incumbent president Jacques Chirac and the extreme-right challenger Jean-Marie Le Pen. The socialist Lionel Jospin, then Chirac's prime minister, was eliminated. In the second round of elections, Chirac defeated Le Pen with more than 80% of the vote.
At this point, polls show Sarkozy being eliminated in the first round of next year's presidential elections. In a second round opposing a Parti Socialiste candidate and FN's Marine Le Pen, the socialist would win handily. Still, the presidential election is 13 months away...
By the way, don't let the word "socialist" confuse you when it comes to the Parti Socialiste Français. It is the center-left party, and the largest party on the left side of the political spectrum in France. It corresponds to the social democratic parties of other European countries.
The last socialist president was François Mitterand (1981-1995). Socalist Lionel Jospin was prime minister from 1995 until 2002. And the Parti Socialiste's presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, got 48% of the vote against Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the 2007 presidential election.