Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31 per cent) in France's legislative elections as 6,500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.
Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next five years, reducing the deficit to 3 per cent by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of "three ways" in the second round on 17 June, whereby three candidates reach the second round and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande's Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left.
The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande's power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a "citizen revolution", has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this "corrupt and unjust capitalist system" and reflects the only real alternative: "We don't need three cars or big houses - the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind - we need a revolution." But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe's problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they're concerned there could be a "return" of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by "near constant strikes". After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen's views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and "the fratricide which occurred" means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party.
The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou's ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the "New Right". Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP's right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an "ideological blockage" for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure to concede it even more accute in light of the thirty two "three ways" in which the FN remains present for the second round.
A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen's success in transforming the image of her father's party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN, which achieved almost 18 per cent in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly - a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77 per cent of the votes; a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May's election. In the second round the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the "Marine blue gathering", a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France's Muslim citizens.
While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10 per cent unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France's policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.